Galway County Council has introduced free parking in towns across County Galway in the hope it will encourage people to shop local and generate extra business during the Christmas shopping period. The initiative allows for free parking from 11am in towns across the county, until 28 December.
The initiative was first introduced a few years ago in Ballinasloe and then extended across the county. “This is an incentive that businesses can use to encourage people to come to their town,” says Acting Chief Executive of Galway County Council Kevin Kelly.
The scheme aims to help towns as a whole, but Mr Kelly stresses that it will only benefit businesses if it is respected and used properly, adding that there are pros and cons in terms of having free parking.
“It does provide an opportunity. In terms of operation, it only works to benefit businesses if parking spaces are not utilised for long periods of time.”
If there is a scenario where a car is parked on the street for a very long time by a staff member or is left there for the rest of the day, it acts as a negative, he explains.
“That is why there is a parking charge from 9am to 11am. Those that are working or commuting are already in the town. The free parking is about achieving the highest turnover of people in spaces so that you can get people in and out to shop.”
Christmas was chosen to roll out the scheme as it is the time when most trade is done and “is a period where businesses can benefit the most from this type of initiative,” Mr Kelly explains. There are no plans to bring it in at other times of the year.
The council is open to talking to businesses in relation to how the initiative works and if it needs to be changed in any way. This, he adds, could be looked at in the New Year. “We are happy to talk to businesses to see if it has helped.”
A number of other initiatives are also being implemented to help county towns. “It is widely recognised that we have many towns that are struggling a bit,” he adds.
Flooding at this time last year was a major drawback for towns during Christmas 2015, but thankfully it isn’t an issue so far this year. One of the challenges this year is online shopping, while another is competing with the larger towns. For instance, towns like Tuam and Ballinasloe, two of the county’s biggest towns, are still small in comparison to towns like Killarney or Naas.
“There are always going to be challenges for the smaller town. It also requires people in that locality to support the town,” says Mr Kelly.
“Any incentives we can take to make it attractive for people to do business in our towns, we’ll do it. The businesses in towns also need to be aware of challenges and do something to address them.”
The council is also focused on other aspects of support, outside of free parking. For instance, the local authority revised their development contribution scheme this year. “We have simplified the charging somewhat recently also,” he adds, explaining that as part of that incentive, there are significant reductions in rates available.
For instance, “For developments that include the renovation of the upper floors of buildings in town centres to business, commercial or residential use, they are exempt from development plan contributions.” And a change of use which doesn’t have any significant impact on services is also exempt. “There is a lot of possibilities in terms of bringing buildings back into use without incurring development contribution costs.”
There is also a rates incentive scheme. If a business starts up in a property that has been vacant for a period of time and the rates for that property are €3,000 euro or less, then there is a “significant” incentive available.
“In this case, the business owner will get a grant equivalent to the rates for the first year. This continues over a period of three years, with the second year seeing it reduced to 50 per cent and the third year it will be reduced to 25 per cent.”
“A business starting up in a vacant property would have a good perspective from a rates point of view,” he adds.
“These incentives are about helping our county towns. The mindset of people is changing, people are more positive and we want to build on that.”