An online poll which suggested free parking on Sundays might not be attracting shoppers to Swindon town centre might not tell the full story

The Adver reported a poll hosted on the Facebook page of inSwindon BID – the company which manages the business improvement district in the central shopping area. It asked whether free parking on Sundays had encouraged people into the centre for shopping more often. But of the 1,600 people who responded, 70 per cent said no and 30 per cent said yes.

There were a number of comments that seemed to suggest it wasn’t the parking that was the issue, rather the offer to shoppers in the town centre.

One wrote: “It is sad but as I live in West Swindon, it is a far more pleasant experience to pop down the M4 to Bristol or Bath. I cannot see any hope for Swindon town centre without a fundamental rethink and change in business model.”

There were other, however, who thought free parking on Sundays was helping. One reader said: “I was in town this Sunday and parked in the Havelock street car park at 10am - it was almost empty. By the time I got back to my car at just after 11am it was totally full and people driving round waiting for spaces. Free Sunday parking must be doing something to draw the people into town.” According to inSwindon, Sunday is one of the strongest performing days in the town’s retail story.

Chief executive Di Powell said: “The Facebook poll we recently completed is just one avenue we have used to source feedback to evaluate the success of the car parking initiative. As well as carrying out a survey with our BID members, we’ve analysed footfall figures to determine any early signs of improvement for Sunday shopping.

“Across the UK, footfall is declining year-on-year, largely due to online shopping. At inSwindon BID, we’re continuously looking at different ways to encourage people into the town centre. This may be through our extensive events programme, or various initiatives to support raising the profile of the town centre. This month, we saw record numbers attend our Urban Beach with positive reactions from the public. Although we’re still waiting for the official footfall figures to come in, the feedback from our BID members has been encouraging.

“As a voice for the town centre retailers, inSwindon BID and shopping centre partners, The Brunel, Regent Circus and The Parade, have worked with Swindon Borough Council to consider options for parking concessions in a bid to support town centre retailers. Historically, Sunday footfall has been lower than the rest of the week, and it’s thought that offering free Sunday parking in all town centre car parks can encourage longer stays and more visitors.

“Early results show us that although Swindon footfall has declined year-on-year, the decline on Sundays is now slower than the rest of the week, with a decline trend of -2.30 per cent (April 1 – August 11, the free car parking period to date).

“Of our BID of members who responded to a survey on the parking initiative, 29 per cent confirm they have seen increased footfall, and 86 per cent responded to say they value and support Sunday free parking.

"This survey was sent to all 450 plus of our BID members, and we understand that not all businesses are open on a Sunday and this initiative would have no initial affect on them, but they appreciate the projects carried out to improve the perception of town centre in general.

“Achieving such a high response in support of the initiative’s continuation, demonstrates retailers’ support for the town centre, with some commenting that they think it’s a great idea and good for business.

“There will continue to be challenging times ahead, as more stores are set to close. We must remember, that many of these closures are nationwide, not limited to Swindon.

"The latest Vacancy Report has been released and we’re delighted that Swindon is once again outperforming the national UK average. Swindon’s vacancy rate is 8.5 per cent, compared with the UK average of 10.3 per cent.

"This demonstrates the desire for businesses to invest in Swindon as we continue to see the shape of the high street change and become more leisure orientated.

“As a business whose ambition is to raise the perception of Swindon town centre, I ask that the Swindon community supports the town centre and #ShopLocalSwindon.”

The borough council’s cabinet member for economy and place Oliver Donachie was the man who brought in the free Sunday parking, at the cost of higher tariffs in midweek.

He said: “Proving whether this helps or not is almost impossible, but one of the questions is whether it would be better or worse if we didn’t do it.

“That’s impossible to tell and the moment, as we don’t have enough long-term data. But the feedback is very mixed. Some businesses have said it’s really helped, it’s given them an extra strong day of trading a week – that’s another 52 good days a year. Others say they’re doing just the same but now having to open and work for seven days instead of six.

“I think what really matters to shoppers is the experience of visiting tow. It’s not the parking that really is important to people, it’s not even what shops there are, it’s the experience they have walking around a town centre.