PAY-by-phone parking charges in Thatcham town centre would be a “retrograde” step and be “exceptionally bad for shops and people”.
Those were just some of the strong objections Thatcham town councillors lodged against West Berkshire Council’s proposed charges, after hearing that the move would be “the final nail” for some traders.
The district council is proposing to bring in a £1 charge to park for one hour in the Broadway and High Street, but in order to help mitigate the impact on local traders the first 30 minutes will be free.
It is currently free for an hour.
The chairman of Thatcham’s Chamber of Commerce, Jeremy Cottam, explained to councillors at a meeting last week that the move would have a detrimental impact on businesses.
Mr Cottam said that 32 of the 35 businesses he had canvassed had expressed major concerns about the charges.
Some of the concerns were that half an hour free parking would be insufficient and that pay-by-phone parking would be an inconvenience to shoppers, particularly the elderly.
Mr Cottam said: “Some [businesses] said they were already struggling and said this would be the final nail.
“That might be a bit extremist but that’s how people felt.
“I had one shocking comment from the RSPCA.
“He said they had a shop in Newbury, in Cheap Street, and once this was bought in there [pay-by- phone parking] they closed it.
“The custom for that shop fell away dramatically.
“I drew breath and thought ‘this could have very serious consequences for the town centre’.
When asked what traders had told him about the health of the town centre, Mr Cottam replied: “It was mixed.
“Some said it’s actually doing well compared to six or seven years ago and they think it’s gradually pulling forward and there’s a vein of optimism.
“There were several who said they were just about surviving.”
West Berkshire Council said that the proposals were a result of “severe financial pressures” that would “enable additional income generated to be used to continue to secure expeditious, convenient and safe movement of traffic and adequate parking facilities on and off the public highway”.
The move follows the council generating a record £2m surplus from parking charges and fines in 2016/17.
Councillors previously heard that the Thatcham charges are projected to generate £11,000 a year.
Mr Cottam said that some businesses saw the proposed charges simply as a revenue exercise for the council.
Picking up on the point, Nathan Gregory (Con, Thatcham South and Crookham) said: “I think it’s a very silly idea.
“West Berkshire Council’s strategy said it would be working to improve Thatcham.
“I don’t see how reducing the number of people coming to the town and shopping is going to help that.”
Dan Carter (Con, Thatcham South and Crookham) added that there had been “quite a strong feeling in the community”.
He said: “People are concerned about the effects on local businesses and the fact that it’s only mobile phone parking.
“I certainly think it’s an idea that could have quite a detrimental affect on the town centre.
“It will put people off.
“I don’t think the benefits of bringing it in will outweigh the cost.”
Mike Cole (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) said that older residents, the main shoppers of Thatcham, would be less “technologically savvy” to pay by phone.
He added that they were more likely to use independent shops which were “absolutely vital to the vibrancy of the town centre and what makes Thatcham”.
“We have a number of shops that are just teetering on the edge and anything that’s going to push it over, one shop over, the edge is an extremely bad thing,” he said.
“We are Thatcham Town Council, we are made responsible for knowing what is good or bad for Thatcham and I think this would be exceptionally bad for Thatcham shops and people in Thatcham”.
Town council leader Jason Collis (Con, Thatcham North) concluded: “I appreciate the need for West Berkshire Council to raise money to balance the budget, but I think in this instance the negative effects far outweigh any benefits.
“We are not a main shopping area and anything that detracts from that is making the business poorer.
“This would be a massive retrograde step. We should object in the strongest possible terms.”