POLITICAL opponents clashed again yesterday over the merits of giving four market towns in Northumberland a week’s free car parking over the festive period.
In December county councillors voted 23-22 to suspend parking fees for seven days in the run-up to Christmas in Berwick, Alnwick, Morpeth and Hexham in a bid to attract more shoppers and boost trade.
Yesterday some councillors claimed the concession had proved to be a major and popular success – with a survey showing that free parking was warmly welcomed by traders and shoppers.
But others said the decision caused confusion among motorists, aggression towards parking wardens and the loss of valuable income to the council.
Concerns were also voiced that the claimed benefits of the concession were more about perception than reality, as the towns would have been busy at Christmas whether parking was free or not.
Conservative and Labour councillors joined forces to vote through the move – despite fears by the Liberal Democrat administration that it would create traffic and parking chaos in the four towns.
A report to yesterday’s economic prosperity scrutiny committee by parking services manager Lynne Ryan said the positives included a boost to the local economy, extra shoppers in the towns and favourable feedback from the public.
Vehicle counts in car parks showed increases of 13% in Berwick, 8% in Hexham and 5% in Alnwick compared to the previous week when charges were in force.
Negatives included the lateness of the decision, which made implementation of the concession difficult and caused problems in getting the correct information out to the public. This resulted in confusion over where free parking applied, the need to stick to time limits in car parks and some motorists paying when they didn’t have to.
Tory group deputy leader, Glen Sanderson, said: “Had this been agreed by the council a bit earlier I think it would have been a fantastic success. However it has still been a success of enormous proportions, given the time constraints and problems, and I would congratulate the officers.”
Fellow Tory Colin Horncastle said an 8% increase in Hexham’s car parks suggested the concession had been “very successful and a worthwhile scheme”.
Independent councillor Paul Kelly, who last month described the move as “crass populism”, said there was a lot of perception, rather than reality, involved in the feedback from the four towns.
“The result is a very mixed outcome, and there is certainly a considerable amount of negativity brought about by the confusion amongst the public and the hostile attitude to wardens.” Coun Anita Romer said the decision had cost the authority tens of thousands of pounds in lost car parking income. Speaking at the meeting, Morpeth chamber of trade chairman, John Beynon, said everyone in his town felt the concession was fantastic.
Ms Ryan said some business owners in Alnwick and Berwick had placed bags over the ticket machines during the free week. “This was not helpful as users were then unaware of the time restrictions in place, and in some cases received penalty charge notices.”
Had this been agreed a bit earlier it would have been a fantastic success