A long-running campaign for free car parking across Northumberland has been given fresh impetus by a landmark High Court ruling, according to Conservative county councillors.
Tories have been calling for years for charges to be axed in the market towns of Berwick, Alnwick, Hexham and Morpeth to bring them in line with Blyth and Ashington where parking has always been free.
They argue that County Hall bosses have maintained the “unfair” two-tier system as a means of generating income of up £4m a year to help balance the council’s revenue budget.
Now Tory councillors say a recent High Court ruling against Barnet Council has seriously called into question the policy of charging in some Northumberland towns but not others.
Last week, Mrs Justice Lang ruled that Barnet acted unlawfully when it hiked parking permit costs to generate more money for road maintenance.
She said the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act is not a fiscal measure and “did not authorise the authority to use its powers to charge local residents for parking in order to raise surplus revenue for other transport purposes”.
Had Barnet won, local councils across the country would have enjoyed sweeping powers to use parking as a revenue-raising service.
Northumberland Conservatives said the ruling makes it clear councils are only allowed to set fees for parking permits and charges for the purpose of relieving or preventing congestion.
Group leader Peter Jackson said not only was there an unfair system of parking charges in the county, but charging was also treated as a part of the general income of the council.
“Excessive car parking charges have been seen as a form of poll tax on wheels for too long in our market towns. For the past few years the excess income from charging over and above the cost of running the car parks has been in the order of £2m a year.
“This High Court judgement gives further backing to the long-running calls from Northumberland Conservatives for free car parking. We urgently need to address the current unfair situation of charging in some towns and not in others.”
The new Labour administration at County Hall has pledged to phase out charges in communities which want free parking and has embarked on consultations with local town and parish councils on drawing up community-based parking plans.
However, Coun Jackson said Labour’s approach to the issue was causing confusion and creating delay.
Council leader Grant Davey said Labour promised to give local people the final say over free parking and that is what they intend to deliver.
“We’ll provide support so that town councils such as Berwick, Hexham, Morpeth and Alnwick can get on with a locally produced traffic management plan, which suits local needs, not the needs of County Hall,” he said.