The AA has called on councils to offer drivers free parking over Christmas in a bid to reinvigorate the high street after lockdown. The motoring organisation also says the move could help fight coronavirus by removing the need to use ticket machines, which it calls the Achilles heel of efforts to curb the virus in town centres.

In a statement, the AA’s president, Edmund King, said introducing free parking in British town centres from December 14 could encourage the shoppers who moved online during lockdown to return to the high street. He said similar measures had been used in the past, and urged councils to consider the move, which could “spread joy to shopkeepers”.

The AA also said the change would help reduce the transmission of Covid-19 by making parking ticket machines redundant. According to King, the efforts of retailers to implement social distancing are sabotaged as shoppers “cluster” around ticket machines.

Woman using pay and display parking ticket machine

And although some might suggest app- or phone-based payment for parking, the AA’s research has found many drivers are put off by the systems and some struggle to use them. A 2017 study by the organisation found 70 percent of AA members were more likely to drive past than use pay-by-phone parking.

“Various parts of the country have #ShopLocal campaigns as they are petrified that niche local stores will be put out of business by on-line retail and lockdowns,” said King. “Free parking periods at Christmas have been used in the past by councils and shopping centres to tempt customers into the high streets and shopping centres. The AA believes that, now more than ever, the hours and free parking locations should be extended.

Christmas tree in parking lot of shopping centre

“With fewer shoppers and some avoiding public transport, opening up free parking would also allow better social-distancing instead of ticket machines becoming the ‘Achilles heel’ of attempts by stores, councils, and shopping centre managers to space out and protect visitors.

“This has been made worse by ticket machines becoming more complicated by requiring vehicle registration numbers as well as credit card details. Also, queuing is often a problem as ticket machines are often located where shoppers are squeezed at car park entrances or close to toilets.

“Just as Dickens described in A Christmas Carol, the grim city streets transformed by the Christmas spirit spreading cheer everywhere, let us hope free parking can banish the Scrooge mentality and spread joy to the shopkeepers.”