Parking free periods - why remove them in Pay and Display car parks and alter tariffs?

There's been lots of coverage in the media recently about changes to Pay and Display parking tariffs in Aberdeenshire, including removing free periods where they currently exist.

Claims have been made that free periods are necessary to allow businesses in town centres to thrive, but it is not a simple issue and we'll try to cover some of the main points here, as well as outlining the changes.

The relationship between car parking and town centres is a complex one – effective management of car parking through a range of measures can play a positive role in supporting a town centre.

A working group of local councillors and expert transportation officers has been looking closely at the issues in Aberdeenshire and came up with a proposal to remove free periods and alter tariffs to encourage longer stays in local town centres.

The principal issue to be tackled is a growing deficit in the car parks budget which has built up since the introduction of free parking in 2014. Previously there was a surplus of income, but now car parks are not even covering their costs.

There is no such thing as free parking – it all has to be paid for by somebody. So any extra money required, for example to cover the deficit in running costs, or maintain and improve them, would have to come out of other council budgets, also under considerable pressure.

It currently costs £48,000 a month to run car parks in Aberdeenshire, with income sitting around £33,000 a month. The projected ‘loss’ this year is £211,000.

Changes to tariffs were recently discussed and decided on by the Full Council (Thursday, January 17), where local councillors had a full and wide ranging debate on the issues. They heard from three representatives of local business associations opposed to the removal of the free periods.

Chairman of the council’s Infrastructure Services Committee (ISC), Peter Argyle, made it clear at the meeting that he recognised the concerns of businesses, but insisted the council had a responsibility to tackle the mounting deficit – which would ultimately have to be paid from other council budgets.

He said that instead of reducing the deficit and preventing future cuts to other council services, in areas such as education or social work, the council would be subsidising motorists to prevent them having to pay 50p to park – when there is extensive free parking outwith Pay and Display facilities in towns already.

As a general principle, Aberdeenshire Council has agreed that services should cover their own costs where possible, avoiding the need for subsidy.

Cllr Argyle said every option for continuing to provide free periods had been looked at, and the council was “between a rock and a hard place”, but it simply wasn’t sustainable to continue providing them, or to rely on those who pay for longer periods to pay even more to cover the cost of the free periods.

“All the evidence suggests that what brings people into town centres (in relation to parking) is the ability to park conveniently and easily – cost is very secondary to that,” he said.

ISC vice chair John Cox also supported the move and said it was important to remember all the investment being made in towns by the council’s Economic Development service to tackle adverse effects influencing the nature of our town centres, such as consumer demand for online shopping. 

Leader of the Opposition Richard Thomson also recognised the need to tackle the deficit, but took the view that this could be achieved without the need to remove free parking periods.

Speaking during the debate, as he tabled an amendment laid out below, he said: “The purpose of council car parks is to provide easy access to the shops and amenities at heart of communities and to promote economic development. They are not there to lose money, but equally they are not there to rake in money. Having a short free period allows for people to make those short 'grab and go' purchases that they might otherwise make elsewhere - for example in our supermarkets - instead. By removing the free period, we risk displacing significant amounts of economic activity, which can only have a negative effect on our town centres.”

Council Leader Jim Gifford encouraged councillors to look beyond the issue of a free period, at the positive aspects of the package being put forward which will help town centres, and asked them to help “talk up” local towns and encourage communities to use their local shops.

Councillor Richard Thomson moved as an amendment, seconded by Councillor Reid, that Council approve the recommendations contained in the report with a proposed tariff of a first 30 minute free period in each pay and display car park and an increase in tariffs in longer time bands of  over 30mins to 2 hours at £2.00, 2-3 hours at £3.00, 3-5 hours at £5.00 and over 5 hours at £7.50 with a review being undertaken after 12 months operation.

Councillors heard this would be expected to reduce the number of longer stays in town centres, as people are effectively being encouraged to spend less time there. In addition, even very small change in the behaviour of those who currently pay for longer stays would potentially have meant a greater deficit in the car parking budget than is currently experienced – potentially around £244,000.

Councillor Martin Ford moved as a further amendment, seconded by Councillor Paul Johnston, that Council approve the recommendations contained in the report with a proposed tariff of first 15 minute free period in each pay and display car park and an increase in tariffs in longer time bands of over 15mins to 2 hours at £2.00, 2-3 hours at £3.00, 3-5 hours at £5.00 and over  5 hours at £7.50 with a view to achieving full cost recovery and a review being undertaken after 6 months operation if required.

Following a vote on each proposed amendment, the latter was voted down.

It was then decided following a 37-25 vote to move to the consultation process for removing the free periods, introducing a new charging structure which spreads the cost of providing car parks across all users and makes longer stays in town centres more attractive.

A contactless payment option would also be introduced, with the intention of looking at Inverurie and Peterhead first. An incentive scheme linking car parking to the use of local businesses will also be investigated.

The 10p convenience charge for using RingGo, the cashless parking provider, will be incorporated into the parking fee and charges will also end at 5pm rather than the current 6pm.

Subject to consultation, when the new tariffs are introduced later this year parking in pay and display car parks will cost 50 pence for up to an hour, £1 for 1-2 hours and £3 for 2-5 hours. The cost will be £5 for anything more than five hours. Any surplus generated will be reinvested firstly in the parking service, followed by other transport related projects.

It is important to remember that there continues to be a huge range of free parking across Aberdeenshire, even in towns with Pay and Display facilities – about 75% of all available off street parking spaces continue to be free and on-street parking in Aberdeenshire has always been free.

Aberdeenshire has more than 100 car parks – more than 4,000 spaces – and charges only apply in 24 of these. Costs to the council include business rates, repairs and maintenance, staffing and enforcement costs.

Statutory and Public consultation will commence shortly to allow communities to feedback on the proposed change before a final decision is made.