Disillusionment with UK supermarkets grows apace, but free parking still gives them one crucial, unfair advantage over independent shops. Anyone who wants to support high street traders must dodge the wardens or pay up, yet a visit to an edge-of-town supermarket carries no such penalty.
In mainland Europe, the playing field isn’t quite so uneven. Major supermarkets are situated on out-of-town commercial centres, often an inconvenient 15 to 20-minute drive out of town to a gargantuan Carrefour, Conad or Auchan. People use them every now and then, not every day.
Back in 2007, a Conservative quality of life review proposed that to address this inequity, councils should be allowed to make out-of-town supermarkets charge for parking, but the proposal was quickly abandoned. No government to date has had the bottle to stand up for small traders against the might of the big food retailers. Indeed, to do so has been viewed by lawmakers as political suicide.
“Free parking created an upsurge for Cardigan’s small shops”
Now an impromptu experiment in Cardigan in Wales allows us to quantify the commercial value of the supermarkets’ free parking advantage. For weeks, before Ceredigion County Council found the £22,500 to repair its town centre parking meters - they were all vandalised one night - the subsequent free parking created a healthy upsurge for small shops. Takings rose by up to 50%.
When they no longer had to pay £1.20 an hour, customers flooded back into the town centre to do their food shopping, doubtless preferring the human-scale interaction to the routine boredom of satellite supermarkets. Once in town, they lingered for hours, spending money in non-food shops, cafés and restaurants.
Marcus Jones, the new high streets minister in Westminster, has suggested small town centres could become “parking meter-free zones” in an effort to save shops from closure, a proposal that might well resonate with Labour if Jeremy Corbyn is elected leader. I’m all for it.
I can hear the Greens and cyclists tutting in disapproval. I’m usually on their side, but in this instance, I’m with the small shops and shoppers. You can’t humph home the weekly food shopping for a couple, let alone a family, by bike or on foot.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This