I congratulate my hon. Friend David Tredinnick on introducing the Bill. It has the virtue of being very simple, which meets one of his criterion, while also meeting the other criteria he laid out. I very much welcome the Bill and support it.
High streets across the UK are under pressure from a shift in spending from physical shops to online shops. There were 15 shop closures a day across the UK in the first half of 2016, and the number of new openings has fallen to the lowest level for five years. That is why local authorities need to be able to do all they can to support local high streets and shops, and the Bill, with its simple implementation of some new provisions, will give local councils such as mine the flexibility to do so. I know from my own constituency the problems local businesses are facing. Halesowen, Old Hill, Cradley Heath and Blackheath have important high streets within my constituency, with a wide variety of shops, places of worship, local services and entertainment venues popular among local people. However, when I visit any of my local high streets, parking is nearly always the No. 1 concern of local shoppers and business owners.
The Halesowen chamber of trade and local councillors in Halesowen have long campaigned for reduced charges, and, where appropriate, free parking on our local high streets. Conservative councillors have secured an important trial period of two hours of free parking to boost local footfall. If that is successful, I hope it will be extended to all council-owned car parks. The Bill will prove useful to Dudley and Sandwell councils in my constituency, because it will give them the flexibility that will allow them to implement the move more quickly and efficiently. Local residents will have to wait until April for it to come into effect, and local businesses are frustrated at the time that it is taking to get the initiative going.
The chamber of trade is taking steps to increase footfall around the town, considering ideas for more activities, organising celebration events, and consulting local business on what they need to help them to succeed. I congratulate the chamber on the hard work that it has done to establish the first business improvement district in the Dudley borough, and I hope that its well thought out business plan will be approved next week.
Traders’ groups throughout the country organise special promotional days to create more interest and increase the number of visitors, but many of them are frustrated by the unnecessary bureaucracy that they face when working with local councils to set promotional parking incentives. As we heard from my hon. Friend Amanda Solloway, many Members will be supporting their local high streets on Small Business Saturday. We should be using campaigns like that to help our local shopkeepers.
Last week I visited a new business in Halesowen high street, the English Rose Tea Room, owned by the inspirational Gemma. She has fulfilled a lifelong dream of owning a business, and has not allowed the challenges of autism to hold her back. We should be doing everything we can to help to create a business and shopper-friendly environment so that businesses like Gemma’s grow and thrive, and the barriers to success are removed.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned, the Federation of Small Businesses has commented that high parking charges—along with other issues, such as changes in the way people shop—discourage shoppers from visiting traditional high streets. The impact on the high street is most seriously felt by small retailers in smaller town centres, and they agree that making it easier to reduce car parking charges will go some way towards alleviating the pressure, but unfortunately, as other Members have pointed out, many local authorities are planning to hike the charges even further. Last year the Local Government Information Unit think-tank produced a report which suggested that nine out of 10 councils were considering increasing charges for on and off-street parking, despite the enormous amounts of money that had already been raised nationally. That, in my opinion, is a short-sighted measure. It does not address the problems facing our high streets, and it is just a quick method of finding more ways to make money out of local motorists.
I think it important for councils that decide to increase parking charges to engage properly with local people and businesses. It is only right for there to be proper consultation on measures that could have an adverse impact on local residents. The Bill requires local authorities to consult interested parties, such as local traders’ groups, if they are seeking to increase charges, and I welcome that. It is essential for those who work, live and rely on our high streets to feel that they have the opportunity to make their case and that their views will be properly considered.