It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, for the first time today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth on bringing forward this very welcome Bill.
I know from my experience of taking the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013 through the House that it is a very significant undertaking for a Member of Parliament to negotiate a private Member’s Bill through with the Government and Opposition and to secure the broad-based support that my hon. Friend has been able to achieve. I congratulate him not only on behalf of his constituents—as he said, the Bill will benefit people right across the country.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government to support clause 1 and the Bill. It sets the framework for regulations that will simplify the procedures that local authorities must follow if they want to lower their parking charges and, in clause 1, their off-street parking charges. The Bill also introduces a consultation requirement, which my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall referred to, if local authorities want to increase their charges.
I am sure all members of the Committee agree that high streets, and town and village centres, continue to play an essential role in the lives of our communities. Parking plays an important role in providing access to those centres. Again, I am sure the Committee will agree that, in this day and age, we want to do everything we can to encourage people to walk, cycle and use public transport, but we need to recognise that, if we want thriving centres, some people will want to travel there by car. It is important that provision is made to enable them to park close to those centres at a reasonable price. There is strong evidence that the cost of car parking informs decisions made by shoppers on whether they will travel to a particular town centre or choose an alternative location, in some cases out of town.
I have experience of that in my constituency. To avoid straying into party political matters, Mr Bailey, I will say a good thing and a bad one. Historically, a previous Labour administration in my town sold off our multi-storey car parks and the charges have gone right up. That has been a significant problem in Croydon town centre. I am pleased that last night the Labour council announced that it would introduce an hour’s free parking in districts across the borough. That illustrates both the good and the bad impact that council decisions can have on our communities.
The Government are committed to promoting town centres as a thriving place at the heart of our communities, whether for shopping, leisure, or perhaps a trip to a restaurant or pub. I believe the clause will help to ensure that all councils have the opportunity to respond effectively to calls by local people and businesses to reduce their car parking charges. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth alluded to, that may include supporting events in a particular centre with temporary reductions to charges, which will attract more visitors and benefit that local economy. The clause allows for regulations to remove the requirements to give three weeks’ notice in the press of an intent to reduce charges. If local authorities are reducing charges, the Government view it sufficient for them to notify people via their websites with only one day’s notice.
The Government strongly believe that it is right and proper for local authorities to consult their local communities and town centre businesses when proposing to increase charges—that point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall. I am sorry to hear of Cornwall Council’s proposals. This is not about the Government dictating how local councils should set their parking policies, but about asking councils, in the spirit of localism, to listen to the views of local communities before they increase charges. To directly answer her question, there is no power in the Bill to prevent a council from increasing charges. We are asking councils to have a consultation before they take that decision. That seems to me to be the right balance in terms of where the House should set policy.
My Department has prepared draft illustrative regulations to try to assist the Committee in scrutinising the legislation. I believe that those regulations were shared with members of the Committee yesterday. I particularly draw the Committee’s attention to those illustrative regulations recognising a specific circumstance to try to ensure that this part of the clause is proportionate. They include provision that there would not have to be a consultation if a council had temporarily reduced charges to support a particular event and was then increasing them back to the previous level. That would clearly be a perfectly reasonable thing for a council to do. It would be disproportionate to make it consult in those circumstances.
To ensure the measures work in practice, prior to the introduction of any regulations, the Government will consult local authorities, the Local Government Association as the representative body of local government in England, the British Parking Association and others to ensure that their views are taken into account before the regulations are made. Furthermore, Parliament will have an opportunity to consider any regulations under normal secondary legislation procedures. I inform the Committee that my Department will undertake a new burdens assessment to establish the administrative cost if any of local authorities’ duty to consult.
You have asked us to debate clauses 2 and 3 as part of the clause 1 stand part debate, Mr Bailey. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth has noted that clause 2 essentially applies the same provisions as clause 1 but to designated parking bays—on-street parking, in other words. I have no additional comments to make about those provisions, other than to say that the Government support clause 2 as we do clause 1. Finally, on clause 3, my hon. Friend has again succinctly summarised the position, and I have no comment to make other than to say the Government support it.
Although the Bill is short, it makes an important contribution to an issue about which all of our constituents feel strongly. It is about their ability to access local businesses in their village, district or town centre, and if they need to do so by car, to do so easily and at a proportionate cost. From the late 1980s and ’90s, we have seen the rise of out-of-town shopping and, more recently, the rise of online shopping. It is important that Parliament and local councils take steps to do all we can to ensure that this country continues to have the thriving centres, which mean so much to us all and help to define the communities in which we live. It is a pleasure to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. I congratulate him on bringing it this far and wish it continued success.