A POLITICAL row has erupted over a long-running campaign by business leaders for a fairer system of car parking charges across Northumberland.
Furious officials at Morpeth Chamber of Trade say they feel “threatened and bullied” by an accusation from a local Liberal Democrat councillor that the business organisation is a “front for the Conservative party”.
Coun Ken Brown also said the town council may withdraw its annual £1,000 grant to the chamber because of its allegedly party political stance.
The row has blown up just days before voters go to the polls to elect new members of the county, town and parish councils.
Morpeth chamber of trade has been campaigning for years against the current system, which sees parking fees levied in the rural market towns while drivers park free in south east Northumberland towns such as Ashington and Blyth.
The chamber has distributed leaflets and window stickers in advance of next week’s county council elections urging people to Vote for Free Parking – and setting out the current policies of the three main political groups on the issue.
The Conservatives have promised to introduce free parking for all Northumberland residents if elected, Labour has pledged to phase out parking charges in consultation with local communities and the Lib Dems say scrapping charges is unaffordable in the current financial climate.
The Lib Dems have now accused the chamber of urging people to vote Conservative – an allegation which it strongly refutes.
In an email to chamber chairman, George Williams, Mr Brown said the organisation was to “publish a leaflet in support of the Conservative Party’s policy of free parking”.
He said this would have “ramifications” for the chamber, including the Lib Dems identifying it as a front for the Conservative Party. Mr Brown also said Morpeth Town Council will not subsidise any organisation that engages in political activity.
He added: “This would prevent payment of the annual £1,071 subsidy to the Chamber, would bring into question joint projects such as Northumbria In Bloom and will probably tear apart the Town Team.”
The chamber held an emergency committee meeting last week and unanimously agreed to press ahead with its campaign for free parking.
Yesterday vice-chairman Charles Robinson said the chamber was non-political and didn’t support any one party.
“There is a great deal of anger, frustration and disappointment at the stance which the Lib Dems have taken on this,” he said.
“We were incensed by this attack on us and feel threatened and bullied. We have been running our campaign against the unfair system of parking charges in Northumberland for almost five years. All we have done in the leaflets is to set out the current policies of the three parties on this issue.
“As a chamber we wish to make it absolutely clear that our policy in having fair and equal car parking charges throughout the county is supported by both the Labour and Conservative parties – and that it is they who support us, not vice versa.”
Andrew Tebbutt, who is the agent for all Morpeth Lib Dem candidates at the county and town council elections, said his party was “astonished and disappointed” that the chamber of trade had taken a political stance in the election campaign.
“We can understand that they want free parking, but to come out in support of a political party on a single issue is not what is expected from a chamber of trade,” he said.
Peter Jackson, leader of the Conservative group at County Hall, said the Lib Dems were “acting like petulant children”. He said: “They have been forced into a corner as the only group which wants to maintain the current unfair system of parking charges.”