West Flanders town of Torhout abolishes paid parking to prevent exodus
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West Flanders town of Torhout abolishes paid parking to prevent exodus

Credit: Belga

The town of Torhout in West Flanders has decided to remove all parking meters from the city by 2023 in an effort to prevent what it describes as an exodus of local businesses.

“It causes too much annoyance and it encourages the emptying of our centre,” Alderman Elsie Desmet told De Standaard, who explained that the town will be switching to the blue disk method wherein drivers can leave a little blue clock visible in their car that shows what time they parked.

Desmet clarified that the abolishing of paid parking doesn’t mean people will be able to just leave their car in the city centre for days on end. With the blue disk method, people will be able to park for free for two hours.

“Especially in smaller cities, the centre threatens to bleed to death in favor of the retail warehouses in the outskirts,” said Luc Ardies of Buurtsuper.be, the union that defends the collective interests of independent supermarkets and specialty stores.

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“It’s a good idea, especially for smaller cities that are not a shopping paradise like Antwerp or Bruges. You give people the opportunity to shop in the centre and walk around there for a while,” Ardies said.

The Flemish town is concerned about economic vitality as it struggles with a growing vacancy rate in terms of its businesses, and hopes that the free parking will help keep the city’s centre attractive for visitors and retail alike.

Still, the move isn’t exactly seen as progressive. Many Belgian cities are moving in the opposite direction, changing streets to car-free zones and increasing pedestrian access at the expense of commuters coming in with vehicles.

“It’s certainly not a perfect solution,” said Nathalie Debast of the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities, referring to the abolishment of paid parking. “That alone will not reduce vacancies.”

But Ardies thinks it will at least help.

“We still live in a society where there are people with a car,” Ardies told De Standaard. “Isn’t it obvious that you also want to let those people visit your local shops? Driving them out of your centre with pedestrian streets and sky-high parking fees means that they will take that car to a local retailer where there is free parking. Is that so much more sustainable? ‘

About 12% of retail properties in Belgium currently sit empty, compared to 5.1% in 2008, De Standaard reports, adding that the number of empty buildings is increasing in city centres, but decreasing in shopping complexes on the outskirts.

“That is precisely why Torhout is making a good choice,” Cedric Tack of the Neutral Syndicate for the Self-Employed said. “It will be a win-win for businesses and consumers.”

Helen Lyons
The Brussels Times