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Car Parking in Melksham - thoughts on the proposed scheme, and wider thoughts too

The local newspaper headlines a rise in parking charges in Melksham from April, and my email contains statements of how charge rises in another town in Wiltshire will kill that town centre, and a degree of disquiet from elsewhere too. I've also been out and about in the town - looking and listening.

What are the facts, Melksham specific?

Here are the current, and proposed, charges for Melksham then:

  Short Term car parking
(Central Car Park)
Long Term
(other car parks)
Melksham is in Band 3 - all towns except Salisbury, Chippenham, Trowbridge and smaller places such as Mere.

"All hourly rates will increase (Except in Marlborough and Devizes which are already higher). There is an option for the town councils to purchase car parks/ spaces, although none have done so to date. Where towns currently have free parking, charges will apply under the proposal."
Up to 1 hourFree0.400.400.30
Up to 2 hours1.
Up to 3 hours1.802.101.802.00
Up to 4 hours1.80n/a1.802.40
Up to 5 hours1.80n/a1.803.20
Up to 8 hoursn/an/a3.805.20
All day n/an/a3.805.60

Traffic Jam in MelkshamThe long term car parks currently offer a five day ticket at 15.40; the proposals include annual "premium" (central), "non-premium" (edge of town) and monthly "virtual" nominate car park permits. I've not fully got to grips with those yet, but I can understand enough to know that edge-of-town parking for a year will cost £655.20 - that's £2.52 per day for someone who parks all day, 5 days a week. So it looks like something that's helpful for people who work in town, although - being 5 day and annual - it doesn't look like it will help parttimers, seasonal staff, or those who don't have the money to hand if the whole fee has to be paid up front.

The "virtual" permit looks interesting - monthly, register up to 2 cars that can use it, and get the same discount level as "non-premium". So that's a monthly permit that lets either me or my partner park in the town whenever we want, and for as long as we want, for 1.80 per day.

Currently, parking is charged from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday; it's free on Sundays. I think I saw a part of the proposal at one point that Sunday would be charged too - but I can't spot this in the latest batch of information, so I'm unsure as to whether or not it's still part of the proposal.

Also part of the proposal is a system under which you can phone in and extend your parking if you're going to be longer than you expected. The current "RingGo" system has a 20p per transaction charge, and I'm not sure if the phone extension (which will not let you stay beyond the car park's maximum) will have that apply.

And what do we think of this?

So much for the facts ... what views do people have on this? Well - the consultation's been going on for a very long time. The Chamber of Commerce in Melksham has publicized it and asked for inputs (see for example My article of last March), the Town Council has highlighted and discussed it and it's been in the local papers. To some extent, then, publicity and objections at this point are something of a "end game" where the people who don't like the scheme, but have not been able to change it so far, are making one last attempt to do so. People who think that it's sensible, or has sensible and realistic elements, aren't going to be raising their voices - "the silent". Are they the silent minority, or the silent majority? Or is the majority firmly in the "don't care" camp?

The following are personal thoughts, and do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of the Chamber of Commerce.

Opening of Lidl in MelkshamThe big "shout" has been about the loss of free parking. That it will harm town centres if people have to pay to park to go to the shops, when they can park for "free" at out-of-town stores. Well - I have some news. There's no such thing as free parking! When you shop at Tesco in Trowbridge or Bowerhill, at Morrisons in Devizes, at Sainsbury's in Chippenham or Melksham, or at Waitrose, Lidl (pictured) or Aldi, you still pay for parking. But the price you pay's included in the price of your purchases; it's not separated out.

By having parking costs included with your goods, the Asdas and Tescos of this world are collecting your parking fee quietly, in a non-provocative manner, and in a way that's far more efficient that having a separate organization and system for the purpose. We do the same at our hotel - we welcome hotel guests, course delegates, and our visitors with a smile and a cup of coffee - not with a demand for 40p because they have brought a car, but I can assure you that look after our parking area, and we do so from the money paid to us for training courses, or for hotel rooms.

There are schemes around (I know of one in Swindon) where you can get free parking if you've spent a certain amount, and the scheme's far from unique. And there's nothing at all to stop independent car parking operations from running alongside or in competition with the council. There's one in Melksham already at Melksham House.

But ... if parking has to be paid for independently, it's always going to be expensive when compared to even the included cost at an out of town supermarket, just to cover the equipment and admin needed. I was down at Bath Road car park a couple of hours back; 3 spaces which are free for disabled badge holders for up to 3 hours, and just 12 other spaces. If 10 of the 12 are occupied for up to 8 hours in a day, that's the sum of £38.00 raised. Not a huge sum of money, virtually all of which (at present, anyway) would be collected in coins. The car park and machines need to be maintained and serviced. Staff paid to enforce the charges, and so on. Perhaps the reason there is so little independent paid parking in Melksham is that no-one sees it as a good business to get into!

So - in spite of my "Chamber of Commerce" hat, I have the most enormous sympathy with the people who have to square the circle and balance the books for parking - and in such a way that they neither encourage demand to outstrip supply, nor leave themselves with an empty car park which would have a detrimental effect on the town as well as on their parking income.

Actually, there are many of us who think they've got it about right; the current system of free in the centre, pay on the outskirts for one hour appeared from the outset to be calculated to cause traffic jams, with the rapid-turnover spaces up a cul-de-sac with a no right turn into it, meaning that drivers are going up and down the High Street before the park. A change to a pricing where it's 10p less to park in King's Street, Lowbourne or Bath Road than in the centre may well lead to traffic relief overnight, and a further improvement on top of the recent ban on "heavies" from the very centre.

I personally regret that 30p charge, though I support 40p in the centre - and wonder if it's going to cost 30p to collect it anyway. But I was speaking with a long time (driver) resident of Melksham on my walk - someone who knows a thing or three about the town and has done his homework, and he was strongly in support of the new scheme in total - "Best thing they could have done" he says.

And let's look at the wider town centre picture

What is the wider picture though? It's about why people set up and run businesses in the town, whether customers come to those businesses, and if enough profit is made from the expenditure by those customers to sustain the businesses.

Cost such as the ones described earlier (and many others) are a natural part of any business ... and it's up to anyone setting up and running a business to decide whether they want to clump with other businesses so they can service common customers and with common public transport and/or parking, whether they prefer to set up somewhere that's not clumped which is likely to be lower cost but less symbiotic, or whether - these days - they can trade purely internet / mail order only. Having made a decision to clump (and for certain businesses especially the add-on-service / casual purchase ones it's the only sensible decision), it can appear to be rather petty of them to grumble about the costs of the cluster unless something really unfair is done to them. It should also be their concern to join with others in the cluster to ensure their voice is heard in wider representations. It is also in their interests to work closely with other businesses in the cluster to co-ordinate things like the hours in which they are open for business.

It has been - I regret to say - very hard work so 'sell' the idea of co-ordination to Melksham's businesses via the Chamber of Commerce. Of course, if you're selling something (as some of us have been on that front) and you get few takers, then you need to look at the pattern and say "do we have the wrong product". Perhaps we do, but I get intensely frustrated to hear moans about new stores competing when the moaners haven't got involved earlier on, or moaning about extra parking costs for the first time shortly before something that's been under discussion for nearly a year actually comes in.

3rd January was a public holiday. It was the last day before VAT rose from 17.5% to 20%, the TV had been full of "beat the VAT rise" adverts, and shopping areas from Cribb's Causeway to the Outlet Centre in Swindon were, by all reports, trading briskly with last minute bargain hunters. I walked through Melksham that day; the pavements weren't quiet, as people walked up and down and window shopped and it was bright and sunny. Our chain stores were open, but almost without exception our local Melksham shops were firmly shut. What an example of a golden opportunity lost.

11.1.11 ... My mailbox contains statements of fury as to the rises from other towns - saying how the council's killing their town centres and quoting (so far as I can make out) the biggest local rises to presumably make the most marketable case that hardship will be causes. Yet on the Melksham front, the feedback I have is as follows:

"Ref yr piece on parking in Melksham. Hope council will start charging up by Kings Park school as there's never space there nowadays""

"Here's another aspect on the notion of "free" parking (via @kim_harding on Twitter [article]."

That latter ... a link to a very through provoking article (admitedly not UK) which talks about the number of parking spaces that there are per car, and the impact on the environment of having them all. It also points out that the typical car is parked 95% of the time.
(written 2011-01-09, updated 2011-01-13)

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