Free parking only saw fewer people shopping Sunderland

Coun. Peter Wood in the Gorse Road car park, Sunderland.
Coun. Peter Wood in the Gorse Road car park, Sunderland.
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EFFORTS to bring more shoppers into Sunderland city centre by introducing free parking actually led to a drop in footfall.

Sunderland City Council’s Free After Three scheme was introduced in November in an attempt to attract extra Christmas shoppers into Wearside.

However figures show that fewer people visited the city while the scheme was in place compared to the same period in 2012.

Parking in council-run car parks was free after 3pm on Thursdays and Fridays and all day on weekends over the festive period, but cameras in the car parks recorded 1.95million visitors in contrast to £2million the previous year.

Now, Tory transport spokesman and St Michael’s ward councillor, Peter Wood, claims Free After Three was a wash-out because efforts to promote it were “half-hearted”.

He has called for the Business Improvement District (BID), which launches tomorrow and aims to breathe new life into the city, to do more.

Coun Wood said: “I am disappointed the council did not do more to publicise the pilot – information about it simply seemed to be available only on the council’s website and in the car parks themselves once motorists arrived there to park. I think they could have vastly improved the marketing. I wonder how many motorists put their money in the meter only to find it was free and that they could stay until sometime on the Monday following.

“The council’s efforts were rather half-hearted. Hopefully the BID’s approach will be more businesslike.”

Figures show the average occupancy across council car parks during the six-week period ranged from 36 per cent to 68 per cent. The difference between individual car parks range from no change on the previous year, to an eight per cent increase.

The Sunderland City Centre Traders’ Association (SCCTA) hailed the scheme a success.

Spokesman Giles McCourt said: “We received positive feedback on the scheme, following a survey of our members, with 66 per cent of those taking part in the survey confirming that their businesses benefitted.

“Eighty-eight per cent of the members surveyed stated that they would like to see the incentive continue.

“It is our understanding that the quoted decline in footfall is less than the national average, which demonstrates the continued loyalty of Sunderland city centre shoppers in an otherwise tough economic climate.

“The visit of the Coca Cola truck was another successful incentive over the Christmas period with The Bridges posting a 15 per cent increase in footfall. SCCTA will continue to propose and support similar incentives the future.”

Portfolio holder for city services, councillor James Blackburn said: “The pilot scheme was introduced as part of a package of measures to encourage even more people into the city centre to shop and enjoy the festive celebrations.

“We will take time to evaluate whether public support for the pilot was reflected by the number of people using our car parks as a result, before deciding whether it will be repeated again next year.

“We continue to work with The Business Improvement District (BID) and City Centre Traders Association to increase footfall, as part of the continuing regeneration of our city centre.”