Four hours free parking trial to begin in Bedford town centre

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Allhallows car park with free parking roundel
Allhallows car park Image: Bedford Borough Council

Bedford Borough Council has unveiled its latest initiative to encourage shoppers and visitors into Bedford town centre with a four-hour free parking trial in one of the multi-storey car parks.

Drivers using Allhallows car park can take advantage of four hours of free parking every day from Tuesday 1 August 2023. The trial will run until the end of January 2024.

The trial is an increase of two hours on the existing scheme that operates at Queen Street car park.

Bedford Borough Council has confirmed that the two hours of free parking in all town centre council-owned car parks every Saturday, as well as the free parking on Sundays will remain.

Cllr Jim Weir, deputy mayor and portfolio holder for environment, highways and transport, said: “We hope this trial will help local Bedford businesses as people can take their time to visit the local shops. 

“It is brilliant news for Bedford – a true boost for our town. With this fantastic offer, everyone can easily pop in for a haircut, enjoy a coffee, or visit our library and museums hassle-free.”

Free parking: a panacea for town centres?

Significant research has been conducted into the impact free parking can have on town centre prosperity.

The Re-Think Parking on the High Street report of 2013, commissioned by the Association of Town & City Management, British Parking Association, Parking Data & Research International and Springboard Research Ltd said: “Somewhat paradoxically this ranges from arguments suggesting that ‘greater accessibility for cars on the high street will increase the viability of town centres by improving trading
for businesses’ to ‘restricting accessibility for cars will increase the viability of town centres by cutting congestion and pollution whilst making the high street more pedestrian-friendly and increasing dwell time.”

Rosanna Heasman, owner of The Store on St Cuthbert’s Street, told the Bedford Independent: “I’d be interested to see what impact his has. I can appreciate the gesture as a business owner but it also feels like it’s a ‘sticking plaster solution’ rather than a substantial one.

“I guess there’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, with some feeling there’s not much to park in town for anymore, with others saying they can’t come because of the lack of good free parking.

“But we need both – reasons to come and available parking in order for things to work well.

“I think this is a step in the right direction and will add to the overall re-building process, but I don’t think it will have a major effect.”

Rosanna Heasman of The Store alongside the Living Wall on St Cuthbert's Street
Rosanna Heasman of The Store on St Cuthbert’s Street. Image: The Store

One new business that says it will benefit from the initiative is The Martial Method, based in the Fit Collective on Dane Street.

“Us and other small businesses in the centre of town will benefit a great deal from the new parking scheme,” said the Martial Method’s Lee McGrath.

“It has been difficult to attract new members to my studio due to parking constraints. Now we can attract more parents to bring their children into the studio, meaning we can help more children and adults through martial arts.”

“Fantastic news”

Helen Patterson, the award-winning volunteer behind Bedford’s FiverFest and Town Centre Champions, said it was “fantastic news”.

“I know a lot of businesses will welcome the trial. Car parking is restrictive on a number of levels and four hours gives visitors time to explore the town’s many independent shops, attend appointments, watch a film at the cinema or enjoy a meal at one of the town’s many excellent eateries.

“There will undoubtedly be some concern from the public about how the fall in parking revenue will impact the council’s income and how any shortfall will be made up – will council tax be increased perhaps?

“I personally would be happy to pay a small increase in my council tax in order to fund a more successful and prosperous town centre.”

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Environmental and financial cost

However, the pilot scheme has not been welcomed by all.

Bedford’s three Green councillors, Lucy Bywater, Ben Foley and Paul Edmonds, are opposed to the increased plans for free parking, saying it will result in trips being done by car that would otherwise be done by sustainable means, increasing congestion and air pollution. 

Ben Foley, (Greyfriars Ward), told the Bedford Independent: “I’m really worried it will increase motor traffic, making the air of the town centre even more toxic.

“This is where residents I represent live: they shouldn’t be forced to breathe even-more-toxic air for the sake of this experiment.”

They also said they were worried that an increase in free parking will further reduce demand for bus services which are still struggling from the effects of the pandemic. 

In addition, the councillors pointed to the potentially higher-than-predicted loss of council parking revenue with the risk that many existing motorists will switch to Allhallows from other paid car parks.

Car parks cost the council money to run and maintain.

Lucy Bywater, Paul Edmonds and Ben Foley - Green councillors elected a the 2023 local election in Bedford Borough
Green Party councillors Lucy Bywater, Paul Edmonds (Castle and Newnham ward) and Ben Foley (Greyfriars ward). Image: Bedford Green Party

“Town centres nationally are struggling,” said Cllr Foley.

“Those that are recovering are where there is a good variety of useful businesses and entertainment on offer, and where councils have made them safe and pleasant to access by walking, wheeling and cycling, or by bus.

“Recent cultural events by different communities in Harpur Square, as well as Bedford Flea and pop-ups such as Pride of Place have been visibly successful in bringing people in. These are what increase footfall and benefit business as a whole, not incentivising a switch to motor vehicles”.

The three Green councillors (Ben, Lucy Bywater and Paul Edmonds – both Castle and Newnham ward) told the Bedford Independent that they made efforts to get the executive decision “called in” for extra scrutiny by the council, but other councillors who shared concerns “decided to hold-off to see how the experiment progresses”.

Future parking policies

Councillor Andrea Spice, portfolio holder for town centres and planning, said: “We are committed to working on a range of innovative projects around the Town Centre which will support local businesses to thrive and prosper. 

“We are hoping this trial will prove successful in supporting our local businesses and cultural venues and will measure this to see how it influences shopper behaviour, as well as continuing to consider other ideas to attract more residents to our Town Centre.

“I’m sure people will want to take advantage of this free period and we will be keen to see how results could influence future parking policies.”

The Bedford Independent contacted Bedford BID to ask how the parking scheme would be marketed to residents and potential visitors. They did not respond in time for our deadline.