A major change has begun in Northumberland which will see controversial car parking charges scrapped – apart from in those communities which want to keep them.
Drivers visiting popular market towns will be able to park free for the first time in many years if long-running campaigns by traders for the removal of charges are supported by councillors and residents.
The Labour administration on the county council is delivering on its pre-election pledge to allow local communities to decide if they want to have parking fees or not.
Initial meetings are being arranged with town and parish councils in places where charges are currently in force – including Morpeth, Rothbury, Corbridge, Hexham, Berwick, Holy Island, Bamburgh, Seahouses, Beadnell and Alnwick.
These will lead to the development of community-based parking plans, including the option of getting rid of charges unless local councillors believe they should stay for traffic management purposes.
The process is aimed at ending what many claim is the unfair current system, which involves charging in rural communities and free parking in major towns such as Ashington, Blyth, Bedlington and Cramlington.
Charles Robinson, who chairs Morpeth Chamber of Trade’s car parking working group, said he was hopeful the abolition of charges was now in sight.
“Morpeth should have the opportunity to enjoy free car parking, like our neighbours in Ashington and Blyth have done for many years.
“We would still like to see a county-wide scheme of free parking rolled out, rather than it being left to individual town and parish councils, but at least the Labour administration is now getting on with the issue.
“We are in discussions with our partners in Berwick, Alnwick and Hexham because this is a county-wide issue.
We are very much aware that there needs to be traffic management, but a disc-controlled free parking system worked very well in Morpeth until charges were introduced.
“It is nonsense to suggest that free parking will lead to traffic chaos.”
Labour county council leader Grant Davey said: “We promised to give local people the final say over free parking, and that’s what we 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.
“We’re hopeful that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will decide that it’s now time to take the politics out of parking and get behind this plan.”
Peter Jackson, leader of the council’s Conservative group, said they would have introduced free parking for all Northumberland residents, leaving just visitors to pay.
He said the process adopted by Labour was complicated and bureaucratic, and there was no timescale on it. “We fear there will be strings attached to this offer of free parking, and no consistent free parking across the county,” he added.