A massive point about the floods was the great outpouring of support for our communities from the whole of the UK—we had not tens, dozens or hundreds of volunteers, but thousands and thousands of people coming to the Calder Valley, as no doubt other areas did as well. People came from Cornwall and even from overseas to help. There were firemen and other people bringing food, mops, buckets and cleaning materials. People were out helping, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that giving something back to them—for example, free car parking—would have been a gesture, though an incredibly small one compared with the huge support they gave us as communities at that awful time.
As I was saying, ideas such as parking on certain days or a limited reduction in charges could have been considered and implemented with minimal fuss under the powers awarded to local authorities through the Bill. Such measures would have provided traders in the towns with a real boost at the very time they were struggling to attract football—excuse me, footfall; we do not particularly want football, because we do not have a football pitch—back to the high street and to get back on their feet.
It is now over 12 months since flooding hit the Calder Valley, and the effects are still being felt by many businesses. Elland bridge, which is one of the main gateways to the town centre of Elland, was destroyed by the floods and remains closed to traffic, in effect cutting Elland in half, which is similar to what we have seen in such places as Tadcaster. Traders and small businesses in Elland have struggled with significantly lower levels of footfall over the past year, not least as a consequence of the closure of the bridge. Under the Bill the local authority could have sought to introduce an imaginative strategy to bring people to the town. This would have provided a huge lift to the traders and the community, and it would have been a clear signal that the town was open for business.
It is absolutely vital that councils have the flexibility to reduce or suspend charges at short notice to stimulate the high street. That may be done in relation to exceptional circumstances such as those that I alluded to, or it might be done to support a community event or festival—for example, charges could be reduced in the run-up to Christmas. Furthermore, the provisions would allow councils to experiment and innovate. In many towns there is a significant difference between the levels of occupation in different car parks and on-street parking bays in the same locality. The Bill would allow councils to develop temporary incentives to increase the awareness of under-utilised assets and to see which parking strategies best suit particular areas in a town.
Requiring 21 days’ notice and the announcement to be published in a local newspaper and posted in the appropriate area is both overly bureaucratic and totally unnecessary in this day and age. When the council is competing with the private sector, as it is in many areas, this puts them at a significant competitive disadvantage, as private firms can currently vary charges as they see fit.