How much should you have to pay to leave your car in a council-owned car park?
The question of whether to offer free parking to shoppers and town centre workers has led to big discrepancies between the amount councils charge, even here in Northamptonshire.
Kettering has long been criticised for charging more than its neighbours, but the borough council can point to consistently full car parks as evidence that people are prepared to pay to visit the town.
We investigate the reasons behind the differences in charges and hear from traders, shoppers and councillors.
What does Kettering Council say?
Kettering Council says it only owns 22 per cent of car parking spaces within the town centre.
The other 78 per cent is made up of spaces in the Newlands multi-storey (£2 for four hours), Sainsbury’s and Morrisons car parks and the railway station car parks.
It added that parking charges were reduced by about nine per cent in 2014.
A council spokesman said: “There are approximately 300 free parking spaces on street within the town centre. Some of these are time limited to up to two hours.
“For Kettering Council car parks, there is no evening charge after 6pm, parking is free on Sundays and Bank Holidays and for a number of days each year (10 in the current year), to support specific events such as Christmas shopping Saturdays.
“Charges were reduced in 2014 from a headline of £1.10 per hour to £1 per hour and have remained unchanged since.”
In November last year, Kettering Council’s portfolio holder for town centres Cllr Mark Dearing told the Northants Telegraph that charges would be reviewed in 2017.
He said: “There will be a review next year on parking and we’ve got to take that seriously.
“I think everyone has a different view on it but we reduced it last time and we would look to see if we could do that depending on the finances again for the review next year.
“We want to encourage people to stay longer so this is why we’ll have the review on car park charges.
“It’s important to listen to what the people say.
“I’m not convinced that having completely no charges whatsoever [like Wellingborough] works but everyone has got a different view on it.”
Parking on Sundays and Bank Holidays is currently free, with further free parking days near Christmas for shoppers.
Cllr Dearing added that that initiative is something the council is looking to continue.
He said: “One of the things we will be doing next year again is having the free parking days for people, I think that’s important when they’re coming at Christmas time.
“We want to get the amount of people in we can and I think offering those sorts of free days, while it might cost the council money, is worth doing because it does bring the extra people in.
“When you look at all the car parks Kettering Council owns some of them, we don’t own all of them.
“We don’t have any meters on the roads, we still have on-road parking, and that’s free for people.”
How do other councils keep parking so cheap?
Leader of Wellingborough Council Cllr Martin Griffiths says keeping parking free was one of the ‘loudest messages they heard’ when campaigning in 2015.
He said: “When we were elected in 2015, Conservative councillors canvassed widely across the borough and one of the loudest messages we heard was to make sure that council-operated car parks remain free.
“As a result, this was a promise that was made to local people, and it is clear that – across both the county and nationally – more and more councils are coming round to our way of thinking.”
East Northants Council leader Steven North said: “Many other councils across the county charge for parking but by offering free parking all year round we make it even easier for shoppers and visitors to enjoy all of our towns which are a mix of high street and independent shops.
“We feel this is an important investment in the local economy.”
What the people think
We asked our readers on social media for their opinions on the cost of parking in Kettering, and the majority called on the council to slash the charges.
Pauline Mehew said: “For the price of two hours parking in Kettering I can drive to Northampton, have two hours free parking in the week or all day Saturday and Sunday and enjoy a much wider variety of shops.”
Stewart Bailey said: “The only shops I go to in Kettering are the ones that I can get to, and get back to the car in an hour so that I don’t pay too much for parking.
“If I know that I will be spending longer than an hour, then I go elsewhere.”
Kelly Brown said: “We have many cars parking outside our house daily because they work in town etc and don’t want to pay.
“It’s expensive so I can’t blame them but it means we have to park a few streets away from our own home because we can never get parked. It’s getting ridiculous now.”
Dan Parkinson said: “I think the town has made some good steps towards redeveloping itself, but clearly people aren’t getting the opportunity to see that hard work.
“Further development won’t happen if these smaller steps don’t take off, and we need to get footfall in to Kettering to show potential investors that it is worthwhile.
“I think reducing parking would help, maybe even making some parking free.”
Krista Norris said: “Parking in Kettering is expensive! Wellingborough is free and other bigger towns have cheaper parking. Sad that people don’t go but parking could be a big factor.”
Kettering Council made £279,000 from operating car parks last year, according to data held by the RAC Foundation.
That’s more than any other council in the north of the county, although it is to be expected when you break down the charges.
Corby Council broke even for the second year running, having previously made £146,000 in 2013/14.
There were only six local authorities in the country which lost more money through parking than Wellingborough Council.
It provides free parking in all car parks, which cost the council £347,000.
East Northamptonshire Council also lost money through parking, posting a deficit of £62,000.
Car parking ‘cannot be viewed as a revenue source’
A report by the Association of Town and City Management says parking cannot be viewed as a money-making scheme for councils.
The report said: “Car parking charges cannot be viewed one dimensionally as a simple revenue source for local authorities.
“If such charges damage the viability of a town centre it will have a knock-on effect on the resources available to the authority.
“Car parking charges must be viewed more holistically as part of an accessibility strategy for town centres which takes into account the need to promote its businesses.
“Such a strategy should lead to the intelligent utilisation of parking provision to support the town centre.
“It may mean free parking, but not necessarily.
“It could equally mean the alteration of charges to moderate demand or to reinvest revenue in high quality public transport alternatives.”
Parking charges in council-owned car parks for up to four hours
Market Harborough: £1.70
Milton Keynes: £2
What do traders say?
Jamie Cooper, owner of Palmers Butchers in Gold Street, called for the ‘expensive’ charges to be lowered.
He said: “£6 for more than three hours is very expensive.
“It should be £1 per hour, that’s acceptable and you can’t argue with that.
“I’ve been here for 16 years and all I have heard is people moaning about how expensive it is.
“Wadcroft Car Park should be attracting the public to park but we get people asking how much it is to park around the back.
“It’s just too much at the minute.”