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Local councils need to change gear on high street revival

How bold and committed to enticing shoppers back to the traditional high street is your local council?

Joined-up thinking on boosting traditional retailing is in short supply in Derby, I discovered to my cost this week.

On a tour of the Midlands in connection with the Drapers Independents Awards 2013, I needed to stop near the city’s cathedral for a short while - probably no more than 15 minutes - to see a contact of mine.

I was delighted that my satnav directed me to a side street near Iron Gate, a main shopping thoroughfare, where there were plenty of parking bays. Pulling up right next to the ticket machine, I checked my wallet and found that I had 75p in change, surely enough to cover the short duration of my stay. But no.

The minimum payment displayed on the machine was £1.20 for 30 minutes, which seemed to me a ridiculous amount.

Passers-by were unable to assist me with change, so I took a risk and headed to Iron Gate to find somewhere to break a fiver. There were no convenience stores or newsagents to be seen, so I walked until I found that rare thing, a branch of a bank.

After waiting a few minutes in a non-moving queue, I headed to my appointment, apologised for having to borrow a pound coin and headed back to the car. You can guess the rest of the story.

I arrived just in time to see a traffic warden slapping a sticky yellow plastic envelope on my windscreen. I had left the car for less than 10 minutes, still had not started the errand that had brought me there in the first place, and had been fined £50 for the pleasure.

The attendant was pleasant and sympathetic and made some notes in his book to the effect that the driver had returned with change. Make an appeal online in a hurry was his advice to me. To back up his testimony and to prove I was not trying to hoodwink the bean counters in Derby Council House, I actually bought a £1.20 ticket, giving me 30 minutes of parking, even though I knew I would be there for barely 10.

Iron Gate, in the cathedral quarter of Derby, is typical of many of our inner-city high streets. A shopping centre has pulled mass footfall to another part of town, leaving a slightly odd mixture of some good-looking independents including the Brigdens menswear stores, the Emily Brigden womenswear store, Bennetts department store and the Young Ideas womenswear store sitting adjacent to vacant units, a musical instrument shop, some pubs, estate agents, council offices and a betting shop.

My experience left me annoyed and not eager to return to Derby city centre any time soon. I think its parking charges are a bit steep, but I wish it was modern enough to have parking machines that allowed credit or debit card payments, which is what I am used to, even in my home patch of sleepy Kent. The enterprising retailers of Derby have my sympathy in trying to win over consumers who have to remember to carry a good handful of coins to feed the machine.

Of course councils need income like everyone else, but parking charges have reached punitive levels in so many areas. Local politicians who bleat about wanting to revive their communities need to bring some imaginative alternatives to the debate. How about, for example, a 30-minute free parking period for the many consumers who are just dropping by on a quick visit? You can spend a lot in local shops in 30 minutes, but you have to be attracted to the town centre in the first place to do so.

Rather predictably, Ed Miliband leapt aboard the high street revival charabanc this week with a pledge to reverse the planned business rates rise, funded by reversing a proposed cut in corporation tax. It’s just the sort of vote-catching promise that a Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition can make. Unfortunately, once in power, politicians often find they have to change their minds. That’s right - they park the idea of high street reform.

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