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Union Street: Could free parking be the quick fix that Aberdeen city centre needs?

Pleas for periods of free parking in Aberdeen have emerged as a summit on Union Street draws nearer
Our readers think free parking could help solve Aberdeen city centre's woes. Supplied by Mhorvan Park, design team

Some of Aberdeen’s best business minds will debate the future of struggling Union Street at a make-or-break summit on Wednesday.

They will consider urgent measures to stave off the decline of the Granite Mile, with a focus on short-term interventions.

Ahead of the emergency talks, we asked our readers on social media what quick-fix ideas they think could make a difference.

One of the most common answers was the removal of parking charges.

It comes as it emerges that parking levels remain far from their pre-pandemic levels – with disastrous consequences for the council’s coffers.

What did our readers say?

On Thursday afternoon, we asked followers of the Evening Express and Press and Journal on social media what urgent measures they thought could help.

🗣️ SPEAK UP: More than 150 people will discuss this at the summit…👇 But what urgent measures do YOU think could help Union Street survive?

Posted by Evening Express on Thursday, 3 November 2022

Jenny Green suggested free parking, while bemoaning a litany of issues in accessing Union Street.

Bryan Herbert simply said “free parking”, while Thistle Thinking on Twitter called for a reduction in prices.

Carol Banks said reduced parking charges at the weekend could entice more people into the heart of Aberdeen.

How much are parking charges in Aberdeen?

The same costs apply at the Denburn, West North Street, Chapel Street and Frederick Street city centre car parks.

They start at £1.20 for one hour, it costs £5.20 for a four-hour stay and £11.20 for up to 10 hours.

The maximum charge is £20.20 for 14 hours.

The West North Street car park, opposite Morrisons. Image: Jim Irvine/DC Thomson

For an idea of how much such a move could cost the council, we can look at a pilot project launched in 2018.

At that time, charges at those four car parks were dropped between 5pm and 8am.

The six-month trial is estimated to have cost the authority £80,000.

The Evening Express covered the scheme with a sense of optimism when it was announced four years ago.

What happened when parking was free in Aberdeen city centre?

The “Alive after Five” initiative was lauded as offering a “multi-million-pound boost” to the struggling retail sector in the months leading up to Christmas.

It was inspired by Newcastle, where a similar scheme is said to have generated £131 million between 2010 and 2018.

Watch Aberdeen Inspired boss Adrian Watson praise the project: 

But the scheme was permanently parked in March 2019.

Members of the ruling Conservative, Aberdeen Labour and independent coalition said research suggested it actually made no difference to footfall.

Aberdeen Labour’s Gordon Graham said: “The statistics have shown that it isn’t working, we shouldn’t keep flogging a dead horse.”

The SNP and Liberal Democrats, then in opposition but now running the council, battled unsuccessfully to prolong it for six more months.

The figures didn’t match the expectations set as the ambitious Aberdeen free parking scheme was launched. Supplied by Mhorvan Park, design team

Parking numbers fall way short of expectations in Aberdeen city centre

Much has changed since the autumn of 2018, and a new report indicates that parking numbers continue to stagnate as a result of the pandemic.

The authority had banked on figures – and income – increasing as society emerged from Covid.

During a recent meeting, Lower Deeside Tory councillor Duncan Massey said: “I note that it has reduced significantly from expectations.

“I guess this reflects a lot fewer people coming into the city centre.”

It was suggested the previous scheme failed partly because people found Aberdeen’s darkened car parks a daunting environment. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

He asked whether “lower charges” could be considered as a way of attracting more people into town.

Chief finance officer Jonathan Belford responded: “Our expectation was that income was going to return back to pre-pandemic levels. It has not got there.”

He confirmed that officers “have been looking at a whole range of different alternatives” to make up for the lost revenue.

Council chief finance officer Jonathan Belford warned of financial "uncertainty" to come. Picture by Scott Baxter/DCT Media.
Council chief finance officer Jonathan Belford. Picture by Scott Baxter/DC Thomson

Though specific figures are unavailable, the problem is contributing to a £6.7 million shortfall in the council’s operations budget.

The cost of street lighting, given increased electricity prices, and of paying other local authorities to provide services Aberdeen can’t is also contributing to the troubles.

Do you think free parking periods should be given another try? Let us know in our comments section below

What else do people suggest?

On Wednesday, November 9, more than 150 traders and experts will brainstorm ways to save the flagging Union Street.

Aberdeen Inspired’s Adrian Watson last night told us “all and any suggestions will be welcomed”.

He added: “We are very open to exploring all sorts of ideas that have worked well previously here or in other cities.

“That could certainly include things like free parking in the evenings or weekends.”

As well as free parking in Aberdeen city centre, other suggestions from our readers on social media included: