Our towns are dying while councils bleed motorists dry for revenue

Opinion: What has been gained on fees for parking has been lost on lower rates income

We walk or drive into them every day and don’t notice, but stealthily our towns are in decline. It happens little by little: a drapers closing here, a cafe going under across the road. One day it strikes you that there are half a dozen charity shops within five minutes’ walk of one another.

It comes down to car-parking. There exists a major structural inequality between the treatment of motorists who park in town centres and those who shop in out-of-town retail parks, which have either free parking or minimal parking charges. While visitors to town centres must run around in constant dread of lurking wardens, those who drive to their nearest out-of-town shopping centre can shop as long as they like, meet friends and generally enjoy their free time without fear of being clobbered with a fine for forgetting what time it is.

Retail parks
The proposed Valuation Amendment Bill, under preparation by the Government, will seek to address this anomaly, but of course will address it according to the usual cockeyed logic: providing for the harassment of those who go to out-of-town centres also. At present, such retail parks pay no commercial rates on their car parks, which means that parking can be offered to the public as a "free" resource. The Bill seeks to address this by applying a rate on the retailer based on the revenues that would be generated by a parking space on the basis of parking charges enforced in the nearest urban space. An Irish solution to an Irish problem: hammer everyone equally.

Meanwhile, the devastation of our towns continues apace, with local authorities, in all but a handful of residual oases, bleeding motorists for revenues. Heavy-handed parking regimes have unleashed a domino effect of decline in many of our once bustling towns. Increasingly, the clientele in town centres are users of public transport – pensioners, students, the unemployed – who by definition have less money to spend.

This is the background to the current civil war in Dún Laoghaire, once the jewel in the crown of south Dublin. In recent years, the town has been decimated by an epidemic of business closures. Some years ago, it was reported that Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council (DLRCC) had imposed a quota of 32,400 annual parking fines as part of a tender for the enforcement franchise. It found a willing accomplice in APCOA, the “parking services provider” whose wardens were sent to prowl the streets in search of the slightest infringement, driving motorists out of town and contributing to the closure of a quarter of the town’s businesses.

Owen Keegan, who as county manager presided over this debacle, has now departed to gift his many talents on the city of Dublin. On the average day, there is now no difficulty finding a parking space, as Dún Laoghaire is virtually deserted on all but a couple of mornings. Every cent the council has bled from motorists has been lost on the multiple through diminishing rates payments, but you'd hardly expect public servants to be capable of commercially putting two and two together.

The Dún Laoghaire Business Association has proposed exploiting Keegan’s departure with a last-gasp effort to save their town. The idea is that Dún Laoghaire become a Business Improvement District (BID), essentially a partnership of the town’s traders and local authority, under the Local Government (Business Improvement Districts) Act 2006. The scheme involves a levy on traders (about 3 per cent on the rates), to be used by the BID to vivify and promote the town. Voting is under way, and closes on February 12th.

The problem is that Keegan, with whom traders long battled in vain to have sense and reason applied to the administration of their town, has left behind a deeply divided business community. For many retailers and residents, the very involvement of DLRCC is an insurmountable negative factor.

Last Sunday, a national newspaper carried a full-page advertisement sponsored by a local business urging a No vote.

Council's role
This week, unprecedentedly, DLRCC felt moved to put up a notice on its website stressing that the BID scheme is an initiative of the business association, not the council. The council's role is solely to facilitate the holding of the plebiscite, and the BID scheme will only come into being if approved by a majority of traders participating in the plebiscite, and then approved by a majority of the county councillors. The notice also stresses that all money collected will be transferred by the council to the BID company.

“The monies collected are not Council income, the income belongs to the BID company,” the notice states. “The income collected by the BID company is to fund activities/services not provided by the Council. The legislation makes it quite clear that any activities/services cannot replace or substitute activities previously undertaken by the Council, they must be new and additional services/activities to those undertaken by the council.”