Fighting parking charges in Colchester

Shopkeepers in Colchester are fed up with rising taxes and council parking charges—but they are doing something about it themselves by offering to pay for shoppers’ parking fees!

Crouch Street in Colchester is well known for its many small independent shops and is clearly thriving despite the economic downturn of the last few years, but even here local retailers have been feeling the pinch. I visited two independent local shops there to find out what they thought could be done to make life less difficult for their businesses. One of their main complaints was that local council car parking is too expensive. An employee at Ambiance on Crouch Street told me that ‘Colchester’s high street is being killed by the high price of car parking.’

‘Colchester Borough Council is simply not doing enough to encourage shoppers in the town centre,’ says Vicki Wheeler, owner of Ambiance. ‘In many other towns and cities, councils have tried to keep costs down for shoppers and local businesses by introducing special offers in council-owned car parks. Some local authorities run free car parks. The council should cut the prices for its car parks, and it should introduce more special offers. The first hour, or two hours, should be free.’

Now, innovative local traders are finding other ways to help customers who might otherwise be put off by the high cost of parking. Ambiance recently started offering to pay for parking in the nearby council run car park. Customers who spend £50 and have parked up to three hours can present their parking receipt at the till and the shop will pay it. Melissa Wheeler, head of marketing at Ambiance, says that a lot of shoppers visit other towns because of the free parking. ‘We know people want to shop locally and we know Colchester shoppers value the independent shops so we thought: “Why not work together”. We can't just curl up and die.’

Another common complaint is that business rates, set by central government but collected locally, are far too high and make little sense. ‘Rates are definitely far too high,’ says Vicki. She and Melissa are both members of the British Independent Retail Association (BIRA) and sit on the committee of the Fashion Association of Britain (FAB). Members of both bodies are agitated about the rising cost of doing business, and would like the government to give small retailers a boost by cutting or, at least, freezing business rates.

Michelle, who runs Boutique 65 on Crouch Street, has been in business there for a year. ‘There’s just too much tax,’ she says. ‘We’re being squeezed.’ Business rates are far too high and are inconsistent. Michelle pays £22,000 per year for a floor space of 1000 square feet—business rates are assessed by looking at floor space and selling per square foot. A shopkeeper she knows on the high street, just around the corner, pays £21,000 for a much larger, four storey building.

Business rates and rents have been creeping up in line with inflation, and sales have not kept pace. In addition, customers have increasingly chosen to shop online, or where other costs – particularly parking – are cheaper. According to the British Retail Consortium, the overall cost of doing business has risen 21 per cent for shopkeepers, whilst total revenue from sales has only increased by 12 per cent. The number of shops in Britain is predicted to fall by a fifth by 2018, according to the Centre for Retail Research

The message is clear: local authorities and central government need to stop making life difficult for shopkeepers by imposing additional costs on them. Consumers should not have to pay so much extra to use high street stores. If the burden on shopkeepers and their customers can be lifted, traditional retailers can survive and succeed on their own terms. The decline of the high street is not inevitable. It doesn't have to be this way.

You can help by joining our Freeze Business Rates campaign. Click on the following link to write to your MP and let them know your views.

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