the joke signs which say “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps” might be as old as the hills, but they are strangely apt for our high streets in 2013.
Who in their right mind would open a business on one of our high streets today? Of course, there are many success stories of new businesses thriving there against the odds, but the hurdles they have to overcome are formidable.
Let’s stop for a minute and consider them. There is the convenience of out-of-town precincts with their free parking on the doorstep, the unstoppable rise of internet shopping – online sales outstripped those on the high street for the first time last year – and the general belt-tightening most of us are going through as we try to make our cash go that little bit further.
And that is before you take into account the on-going disruption caused in the city centre by the tram works and the cost of parking your car there.
Against that background it is easy to understand the growing concern about the decision to push city centre parking charges up again – to £3 an hour. The cost of parking in the city centre has now doubled in a little over a decade. Yes, another 20p on top of already sky-high parking fees won’t make the crucial difference to many people, but it eats away at efforts to make the city centre feel like it offers good value for money.
Perhaps the most worrying thing about the decision to hike parking charges – as well as considering introducing them on Sundays – is the piecemeal thinking it seems to show.
In several ways, the city recognises that our high street businesses need all the support they can get right now. The council’s Business Gateway offers free advice to fledgling entrepreneurs and plans are being drawn up to revive Rose Street to encourage visitors to spend more time relaxing there.
But at the same time the local authority is taking steps that could have been designed especially for driving visitors away from the city centre. If we are serious about supporting our traditional high streets, the time has come for some joined-up thinking about how to achieve that.