MPs seek tax on car parks out of town

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MPs have called for a tax on out-of-town car parking spaces to stop shoppers deserting traditional town centres for greenfield superstores.

Several pressure groups had proposed such a tax, which could raise hundreds of millions of pounds a year. But to have an all-party House of Commons select committee back the idea gives it a new respectability.

Neither of the main parties would contemplate such a tax in the run-up to the election. But the recommendation from the Environment Select Committee in its latest report on shopping centres puts it firmly on the agenda after polling day.

The MPs said: ``We recommend that the Government consider either introducing a levy or allowing local authorities to assess car parks for business rates.'' At present they are not rated, in or out of town.

The committee chairman, Andrew Bennett, said there was a wide gap between car parking charges in out-of-town shopping and leisure centres and those in the town centre. ``When I go into the middle of Stockport to shop it costs me 80p while if I use the new out-of-town John Lewis store at Cheadle its free,'' he said.

Many town centre car parks were owned by local councils and the charges had become an important source of revenues. ``It's not easy for a cash- strapped council to cut those charges to compete with out-of-town developments.''

The tax would be paid by the owner or operator of the out-of-town car park, who could choose whether or not to pass it on to customers in higher parking charges. It would apply to developments already built as well as all future ones, covering the hundreds of thousands of out-of-town car parking spaces which have sprung up in the past 20 years. The aim would be to encourage more use of public transport and town centre facilities and discourage the use of greenfield sites which is eating away at the countryside and encouraging more and longer car journeys.

The MPs' recommendation opens a debate about the level of tax, whether councils or central government should collect it, and exactly what kind and location - edge or out-of-town developments - it should apply to.

The growth in big out-of-town shopping centres has slowed, because the Government has changed planning policies to oppose them and because so much has already been built that some retailers are approaching saturation point in some areas. None the less, there are dozens which have been granted planning permission by local councils but not yet built.

But Mr Bennett said leisure developments such as multiplex cinemas and bowing alleys were now rapidly expanding out of town. "These represent the latest threat to existing town centres as places where people not only shop but live, work and relax,'' he said. He was delighted that John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, recently rejected Virgin's plans for a 10-screen cinema at an out-of-town site near Eastleigh in Hampshire.

The MPs also called for tax relief on companies' contributions towards approved town centre improvement plans.

Their report was welcomed by the Civic Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

Tony Burton, for the council, said: ``If we're to learn anything from the environmental damage caused by out-of-town shopping, it is that stronger carrots and sticks are needed to steer development into towns and cities where it can contribute towards urban renewal and slow the growth in traffic.''