That is exactly why I am discussing the value of town and village centres and their importance to the community. Car parking charges can help towns and villages to play exactly that role.
As I was saying, chance meetings in the town or villages centre are a valuable part of keeping communities strong. We need our communities to get stronger again, so chance meetings are really important. I would not deny that large out-of-town shopping centres have an important role to play. Some of my constituents will go to the Bluewater centre when they want to get clothes or do a big shop. It is not in my constituency, so I am not a regular visitor there, but I know it has a role to play. Nevertheless, it is not the place where people are going to bump into somebody they have not seen for a while, or at least they are not so likely to.
It is difficult for our towns and villages to compete with destination shopping sites and with the internet, and parking charges are a factor in that. Other Members have referred to the Federation of Small Businesses, the Portas review and several other sources that say that car parking charges are a significant factor in people deciding where they are going to shop. In a rural area, as much as we want to encourage people to use other modes of transport, the reality is that the car is how most people need to travel, so parking charges are a factor in most people’s shopping decisions.
For the sake of our towns and villages, many of us would like to see car parking charges that are as low as possible. Nevertheless, having discussed this with some of my local councillors, I do understand that it is not as simple as just putting charges down to the lowest possible level, or getting rid of them altogether. The revenue needed to maintain car parks is an element. Also, if there is a station near the town centre, we do not want the town centre car park to be used for all-day station parking. There is a risk that were car parking charges to be completely got rid of, such a car park would just be used for station parking and there would be no footfall from people coming and going because they would not be able to use the car park to get to the shops. It is therefore important for there to be flexibility in the level of parking charges.
It is also important for a council to be able to experiment and find out what works. Critically, as the Bill would allow, we must enable councils to reduce car parking charges at certain times and for special events. If there is a station in the town, it may be impossible to have very low parking charges all the time, but the charges could be reduced for specific events. Faversham is a fantastic town for special events. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned the food festival in Malton in his constituency; well, Faversham has a food festival and a separate beer festival—we do not have to have them on the same day! Actually, it is known as the Faversham Hop festival; I shall be called out if people think I have been calling it the beer festival. Incidentally, a lot of people come to that particular festival by train; hon. Members may understand why.
We have a food festival, and also a hat festival. We have a nautical festival, because Faversham is nautical town as well as a beer town, a transport festival, and markets on the first and third Saturdays of the month. There are many events to come to in Faversham, and those could be days for the council to drop car parking charges. Or, the council might experiment with dropping the charges on days when the town is quieter as a way to bring people into the town when no event is taking place. The point is that the Bill is about giving councils more flexibility so that they can make changes and test what works to bring more footfall into the town. That is why I am delighted to support the Bill.
It is worth emphasising, however, that increasing car parking charges is another matter. Such increases should be consulted on with some rigour, because they are a concern for residents and businesses. Given how parking charges affect people’s decisions, increasing them could clearly be a concern for businesses and some might worry that they would be put out of business, so it is absolutely right that there should be consultation if car parking charges are to increase.
I checked with my local councils what their thoughts were about the Bill. I was in touch with Councillor David Burton, the chair of the transportation committee of Maidstone Borough Council, which is one of the two councils that my constituency overlaps with, and he said that he was happy with the Bill and that it will place no extra burdens on local councils. I thought that that was a good thing to hear. He flags up how he thinks that the excellent modern transport Bill will be valuable. He emphasises that councils will have to move quickly to keep up with the pace of change.
I certainly welcome the fact that my local councils have been good at introducing payments by smart phone for car parking charges—a method that is helpful, when thinking of flexibility, in enabling people to pay as they leave or to top up easily while they are parked. It is important that councils use such things to help to support local towns and villages and the shops in them.
To conclude, I very much support town and village centres and want to see them thriving. I am therefore delighted to support the Bill.