Stead and Simpson have decided to close their city centre branch because of a steady drop in the number of customers. The reason, says the manager, is that car parking charges are too high.
That’s something we all know, but not something cash-strapped officials in Trowbridge want to hear. “Where’s the evidence?” they ask. “What proof do you have that this is anything to do with car parking?” Which is pretty cynical, given that it’s hard to ask people who’ve gone elsewhere why they’re not here. How can we prove a negative?
Step forward Ian Newman, chairman of Salisbury City Management, who gave a fascinating talk to the Rotary Club on Monday. A year ago, he told us, he persuaded a fellow entrepreneur in Romsey to let him station someone outside the shop to canvass passers-by and ask them two questions: 1. Have you ever been to Salisbury? 2. Would you consider going there to do your shopping?
The results were depressing. Of the 260 respondents, virtually all knew the city. And 212 – virtually four-fifths – said they wouldn’t come here because of parking difficulties and charges. Admittedly some of that may have been hearsay, but having a poor reputation is just as bad for business.
So what should we be doing? It seems to me that the first thing is that our Wiltshire Councillors should keep complaining in the Trowbridge corridors of power about high short-term parking charges. This could be pretty effective, especially if seats are at risk come election-time.
Secondly, we should learn from rival centres in Winchester, Romsey, Blandford, Southampton and Andover. Shoppers there can park near the shops, and are not over-charged for the privilege.
So any development in the central car park (such as chequers of varied businesses and shops) needs to provide adjacent and reasonably-priced four-hour parking.
Park-and-rides don’t work for shoppers, and they need to be used for their original purpose of providing long-term and low-cost parking for the people who work here. And finally perhaps our city fathers could look again at the suggestion made years ago by Patrick Paisey, and devise a three-day Salisbury Experience package for visitors – based on city centre hotels and embracing visits to the cathedral, the market and Stonehenge . Do all that and (provided rents are not too high) we could see businesses queuing up for space. Who knows? We might even persuade Stead and Simpson to return.