A problem that can’t be parked

RGDATA director general Tara Buckley is calling for national parking guidelines to be introduced to help tackle the ‘parking ghoul' afflicting Irish towns and cities
RGDATA director general Tara Buckley is calling for national parking guidelines to be introduced to help tackle the ‘parking ghoul' afflicting Irish towns and cities

Gillian Hamill speaks to RGDATA director general Tara Buckley about how the group intends to achieve the implementation of national parking guidelines, as well as finding out how Naas and Ranelagh have been affected by parking woes.

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13 March 2013

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"High rates, fines and the threat of clamping are driving people out of town centres." This was the frank verdict of RGDATA director general Tara Buckley, who at the end of January launched a report entitled ‘Nightmare On Every Street – Town Centres, Car Parking and Smart Travel’. This aims to provide practical solutions to the parking problems faced in towns and in doing so, boost local retailers’ businesses.

Generating awareness

ShelfLife was keen to learn more about the group’s progress towards having these proposals implemented. According to Buckley, not only has the organisation made a special presentation to TDs and Senators in Leinster House on 27 February on the issue, but there are also plans for a delegation from RGDATA to make a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation on 12 March.

A leaflet with all the report’s details and recommendations has already been sent to all TDs, Senators and county councillors, including Environment Minister Phil Hogan, from whom a response on the national parking guideline proposals is expected.

Alongside persuing a busy agenda on the political front, the retail lobby group has also been making waves within both local and national media. RTÉ News and RTÉ’s Consumer Show have all broadcast segments on the subject.

Largely positive response

Buckley says the response to such widespread coverage has been largely positive. "The report has been welcomed by An Taisce, Cyclists.ie and a large number of local councillors and local groups representing town centre traders in towns where parking is a significant issue including Dun Laoghaire, Ballinasloe, Howth, Macroom, Tralee and Ennis."

But while suggestions such as introducing graded sanctions – the idea that those who are 15 minutes late back to their parking space should not be charged the same as those who are an hour late – have been welcomed in many quarters, the report is not without its opponents. A proposal to introduce a levy on out of town free parking, to be imposed on the operator of the shopping centres and paid to the local authority, has proved somewhat controversial. "Some people have contacted us to say they don’t like our suggestion about a levy on the free parking at out of town centres," says Buckley. "They told us they specifically go to out of town shops because they don’t charge for parking. That pretty much makes our argument stand up. The point RGDATA is making is that [the situation] should be equalised – either have a charge for parking or don’t have a charge for parking; Stop penalising the town centre customers."

One such opponent is David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland, who candidly describes the levy proposal as "a nonsense…The answer to the issues and the problems faced by town centres isn’t to apply those problems to other jurisdictions," he tells ShelfLife.

"The answer is for local authorities to take a more active role in the running of towns and cities. Local authorities can no longer be satisfied with doing the basics like fixing lamp-posts and potholes, they need to apply town centre management logic similar to that, that say Don Nugent applies when he runs Dundrum Town Centre. They need to bring all the stakeholders together and form a town team, they need to produce development plans for the town called a town plan and they need to implement that plan." He explains that this would cover many issues such as dealing with occupancy, and developing a prospective for future retailers in the town.

However when asked if he agrees with RGDATA’s proposal that one hour of free parking could be introduced in towns to level the playing field between them and out of town outlets, Fitzsimons replies: "Of course. There’s lots of things that need to be done with regards to town parking. In our own town centre review last year, involving 14,000 surveys being completed nationwide, we found that car parking availability and accessibility is actually a far more pertinent and important issue in determining a visit to the town than car parking prices."

Varying responses from councils

ShelfLife was also keen to learn from RGDATA if some town councils were more amenable towards the recommendations than others. Its report suggests this could be the case where it states that following a judgement from the European Court of Justice, the government introduced VAT on off-street parking in 2010. While most of the town councils said they would be absorbing the costs of the VAT increase for off-street parking into their current costs with a possible later review, Newbridge Town Council and Donegal Town Council said that they would be applying the VAT rate at 21% and 13.5% respectively, to their off-street parking facilities.

In response to our question, Buckley asserts: "Absolutely. That is one of the key points we are trying to make." RGDATA looked at 16 towns and found the car parking regimes, fines, waiting periods etc were all different. However some towns had introduced innovative measures in a bid to improve the situation, such as cutting parking charges, introducing special offers and incentives such as free parking periods on Saturdays and streamlining grace periods.

A balanced regime

"The key point is that RGDATA supports a balanced parking regime that assists the town centre to utilise its parking resources to make the town attractive to visit and do business in," says Buckley. "Good parking regimes stop people from hogging parking spaces for the whole day and encourage people who want to come into town, to do their business in a few hours and leave."

By comparison, she says that towns which are "pushing up the charges and are over-zealous about fining people who are five minutes late back to their cars are pushing business away and reducing the footfall in the town." The subsequent shop closures result in "fewer businesses to share the rates burden." A lose-lose situation for all concerned.

 A nightmare in Naas?

ShelfLife visited the Co. Kildare town of Naas to hear retailers’ verdicts on the town’s parking facilities.

Half-way through trying on outfits, customers are not infrequently forced to interrupt their shopping expedition mid-flow or risk falling prey to the clampers. So we are told in Scruples boutique, where the off-street parking opposite the store is available for just one and half hours. It’s a similar story in nearby home interiors store, Treasure on South Main Street. Owner Catherine Gilfoy describes the situation as "awful." She says that while there are two car parks at the opposite end of the town that these don’t service her end of the main street. Footfall is down and Gilfoy says it’s not surprising a lot of retailers are moving to the out-of-town Tesco Monread complex where customers can "leave the car and browse".

Situation ‘getting worse’

Martina Lambe who works in Fleming’s Florist, 33A South Main Street, agrees that parking availability is "horrendous". She believes the closing down of Superquinn Naas had a big impact on the town and that the situation is "just getting worse". According to Lambe, a nearby car park which would have provided a couple of hundred spaces has closed. Plans for a new shopping centre which would have had a large anchor tenant such as Dunnes Stores, have not materialised and she adds that it appears a Penney’s store said to be coming to the town, will now not go ahead. We "badly need something," she says.

Mark Lloyd, manager of Rushe’s Eurospar, likewise believes there are clear parking difficulties. Fortunately Superquinn has its own car park for its customers’ use which has approximately 40 plus spaces. Lloyd explains that this is operated by NCPS which can clamp cars, as this is necessary to prevent all-day parking and to ensure there are spaces available for Eurospar’s customers.

Clampers on commission

Tara Byrne of Tara’s Designer Exchange on nearby New Row, says that in the two and a half years she has been based at the store, five customers have reported being clamped, in some cases when they were only five minutes late. She believes private clampers who are on commission and who don’t provide any grace period, are having a negative effect whereby "shops are closing and it’s affecting businesses." In fact, she points out that previously at the town’s Dandelion Marketplace, there were "parking angels" in operation; volunteers who would spot when a customer’s ticket was about to expire and add time onto it.

Ciaran Mattimoe of Mattimoe’s Londis believes that a local multi-storey carpark which his own staff use is "underutilised" and that this could help solve some of the difficulties. He says that although the car park is a short walk away, customers increasingly "almost want to drive up to the till." On the other hand, he also believes traffic wardens should be less strict and that the town council could offer initiatives such as two hours parking free. 

Accessible and secure multi-storey 

Finally we spoke to Amanda Kelly of the Foot C Index outlet based in the Dandelion Marketplace. She described the adjacent multi-storey carpark as "excellent", being "very accessible and secure." Kelly pointed out that the Town Centre Car Park with 353 spaces, "only costs EUR*5 a day compared to some multi-storey carparks which can charge €2.80 an hour".
While from the retailers ShelfLife spoke to, it appeared that the north end of the town was better serviced than the south with regards to car parking, it is clear that serious issues nevertheless exist that are affecting footfall. Naas retailers would certainly benefit from some of the measures RGDATA proposes.

Ranelagh parking woes

In 2010, ShelfLife awarded the C-Store Community Initiative Award to Peter Dwan Jnr of Dwan’s Spar, for his "Beat the Clampers" initiative. This involved the distribution of 4,000 electronic parking tags in the Ranelagh area, so that customers could call into their local stores without the fear of being clamped.

While this was a great forward-thinking initiative, today, Ranelagh still faces major parking problems. According to John Byrne, manager of Dwan’s Spar, the clampers are still "very aggressive", operating a "clamp first, ask questions later" policy. In a further bid to combat the problem, the store has offered a parking payment facility through Payzone which is half-price when customers pay at the till and it may also re-introduce the electronic tags/fobs scheme in the future. 

Further down the main street, Christina Inacio of children’s clothes store, Serendipidy, says better parking availability could encourage "people from outside to come into Ranelagh as local people tend to walk here." Heather Burke of nearby Blooming Amazing is in full agreement about the limited nature of the current parking facilities.

A representative from Superquinn who declines to be named describes the parking situation as "a nightmare." Superquinn Ranelagh has its own car park with approximately 25 spaces . However he says the store is considering introducing a pay and display mechanism, because due to people abusing the facility, Superquinn’s own customers are unable to find parking. 

Esther McCarthy of Seagreen says: "It is very hard to park here, it’s hard to find a space and it’s expensive." She would like to see a 15 minutes grace period introduced. Perhaps the last word should go to her customer though, who says she was prevented from calling into the store earlier due to the difficulties involved in parking. As every good retailer knows, the customer is always right.

 

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