PARKING in council-run car parks in Blackburn town centre is to be made free on Saturdays in a bid to boost trade.
The move could give shoppers a saving of £1.20 for two hours and £2.30 for four which traders hope will be spent in their businesses.
The change, which comes into force from this Saturday, covers all 14 council-operated car parks in and around Blackburn centre with more than 1,200 spaces.
But it does not include on-street parking or privately owned sites.
It follows the recommendations of retail guru Mary Portas who says free parking is one of the best ways to boost high street trade.
It will operate for the rest of this year, through Christmas and the New Year sales and be reviewed on March 31.
And the scheme could even be extended to weekday afternoons.
The plan to scrap the charges, which will include those at the brand new £5million Feilden Street car park, takes into consideration the views of town centre businesses who said that parking fees were a weak spot for Blackburn.
Andrew Lightfoot, Blackburn with Darwen Council’s managing director of local government services, said: “Figures show that the town centre is still popular with shoppers despite the economic climate and it is holding its own, particularly against other similar-sized towns.
“It is intended that promotions like the free parking initiative will maintain this trend and as well as boosting high street names will support independents who find it harder to compete. We are one of the first large authorities to offer free parking in all council-owned car parks all day on Saturday.
“What private centre operators do is up to them. When we review this in March next year it could potentially lead to free parking on weekdays for shoppers.
“We think we are ahead of the game with our regeneration of the town centre with things like the £70million Mall/Market development and we want to stay ahead of it.”
Tony Duckworth, president of Blackburn Chamber of Trade, welcomed the move.
He said: “I am delighted that they are making this move. It is of huge importance to shoppers to be able to come to the town centre and park for free.
“We now have lovely open spaces in Blackburn like King William Street and Church Street which should be full of people enjoying themselves. Hopefully this - and a return of some good weather - will see them there doing just that in the sun on Saturdays at least.
“I am very pleased the council has listened to what we have been saying and hopefully this is just the beginning of a fruitful dialogue between us on the future of the town centre.”
Executive member for regeneration, Coun Dave Harling, said: "Our traders were telling us that this was something that they wanted to see introduced and we are committed to supporting local businesses so this was something we decided to take forward.
"We are very proud of the new market and the redevelopment of the shopping centre and we know that Blackburn is already a popular shopping destination.
"This new scheme will allow us to build on that and make the town centre even more attractive to shoppers."
Jack Straw, Blackburn MP, said: "This is a brilliant initiative and hopefully will attract even more shoppers to come to Blackburn's spectacular shopping facilities.”
The car parks included in the scheme are: Feilden Street - 513 spaces; Montague Street – 40 spaces; King Street – 25 spaces; Fleming Square – 11 spaces; Weir Street - 38 spaces; Mill Lane 30 spaces; Canterbury Street – 107 spaces; Barton Street – 42 spaces; Starkie Street – 128 spaces; Simmons Street – 10 spaces; Watford Street - 10 spaces; Byrom Street - 200 Spaces; Salford Car Park – 70 Spaces; Waves Car Park – 27 Spaces.
Most town centre car parks in Blackburn, which include Penny Street and Fielden Street, cost £1 for an hour and £1.20 for two hours while the Mall roof car park is £1 per hour, £1.20 for two and £2.30 for up to four hours.
What the traders say...
Phil Ainsworth, of Ainsworth’s Jewellers This is very welcome and will benefit the town. Let’s hope once customers hear about it, they will come and see all the developments.
Peter Hobkirk, of Hobkirk Sewing Machines It's fantastic, this is what we've been after. We've got competition from other towns and we need to get people in.
Mark Smith, of Coffee Exchange Like it or not parking, or most importantly the cost of parking, is what makes our town centres barren, and out of town free parking shopping centres busy.
Malcolm Marsden, of Whitakers Butchers It will definitely make a difference. Saturday is the busiest shopping day so it will get people coming in. It is long overdue.
Fiza O’Conner, of Alan Rene hair salon It will be good for the whole town centre. We get lots of our customers given tickets for over staying just a few minutes. It’s really good news.
Susan Sumner, of Butlers Family Restaurant It is really good news. It will bring lots more people into the town centre. Hopefully they will come in, shop and have something to eat.
What the shoppers say...
Marlene Sharples, 64, Blackburn More people will come if free parking is introduced. Parking charges put a lot of people off. I don’t think it would put anyone off! The town needs something.
Emma Walsh, 18, Blackburn Free parking would put people off because it’s too busy to park and to shop. I get taxis in to Blackburn and if it’s too busy it’s hard to push the pram.
Melissa Lee, 29, Rossendale It’s good news for us because the main time we go shopping is a Saturday. Free parking will bring more people to the town.I don’t mind paying, but not the amount some car parks charge.
James Cormier, 29, Rossendale It’s not too bad when it’s only £1 to park on a Sunday. To most people, that’s not too much. If it was free, I would come in to Blackburn more often.
Stuart Frost, 50, Blackburn I think it’s a good idea. It would bring more people in to the town. I think the parking charges put a lot of people off.
Kenneth Lee, 70, Blackburn I don't bring my car anywhere near the town centre. I get the bus or walk. It’s inconvenient to drive - you have to find a car park, look for spaces and then pay for parking.