Forum accuses councils of raking in cash from motorists and leaving high street business to suffer the consequences

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The not-for-profit small business support organisation last month called for local authorities to dump car parking charges for 2013 as part of a drive to help struggling high street traders in what looks set to be another difficult year.

The Forum said this would increase footfall in town centres and make them more attractive places for firms to do business, and reduce the number of vacant commercial premises.

But research released by the Institute of Advanced Motorists this week showed how local authorities across the country made record profits in 2011/12 at the expense of motorists compared to previous years, with the average take increasing by 15%.

Westminster Council topped the national list, raking in an extraordinary £38 million from fines and charges levied against motorists. In the north Newcastle topped the list at £6.2 million, while Birmingham City Council netted £3.8m, with the wider West Midlands area near £20m. Manchester stood at £5.97m, and Liverpool £3.28m.

"With councils making this kind of profit at the expense of motorists it's no wonder shoppers are thinking twice about visiting their local high street," said Forum spokesman, Robert Downes.

"The evidence is now there for all to see that many councils are using motorists as cash cows without a thought for the consequences their actions have on the wider business communities.

"With an average increase of 15% in take from fines and car parking charges, it's plain councils are ramping up efforts and prices to raise revenue. Crude and short-sighted money spinners like this just means more and more shoppers abandoning their local high street and looking elsewhere for their shopping needs.

"The end result will be ghost high streets with boarded up shops. What we need is councils to look at new options. Lower car parking charges, or have entire days or afternoons where it's free.

"The high street is sick, and while not a cure-all, free parking for shoppers would be a practical dose of medicine to helping ailing retailers make it to 2014," he said.

The Forum says free parking schemes such as the one run by Pendle Council in Lancashire, which gives all motorists the first two and half hours free in all authority owned car parks, would help drive trade back from out of town shopping centres, while safeguarding against all day parking abuse.

"Times are changing, and town centres have to be managed better by local authorities if they are to survive and compete with the likes of internet e-tailers and out-of-town shopping centres where parking is often free," continued Downes. 

"Making motorists pay a nominal amount to park their cars in a town centre 20 or 30 years ago might have made sense then, but it's just utter madness now and is killing trade.

"These latest figures show just how ignorant many councils are to the needs of their local high street businesses.

He added: "The Government has done its bit by extending Small Business Rate Relief in the Autumn Statement, now it's the turn of councils to do likewise with free car parking, or any kind of concession for motorists that entices shoppers in to their local town centre."

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Figures released this week showing a huge rise in revenue for councils through car parking fines and charges is damning proof local authorities are hammering motorists visiting town centres, the Forum of Private Business has said.