FREE parking periods will be offered to Morpeth shoppers in the run up to Christmas, but traders are still frustrated by unfair charging regimes.
Currently, those with a Morpeth shoppers’ permit can park free between 9am and 11am, and from 3pm to 5pm, each day.
But next week the free period will be offered to anyone parking in the town in the week before Christmas, regardless whether they have a permit.
The scheme was announced by Northumberland County Council to tie in with the same initiative in Alnwick, Hexham and Berwick.
Council Executive Member for Infrastructure and Environment Isabel Hunter said: “Free parking at Christmas was not part of the car parking strategy, but we recognise that in the current economic climate it is particularly important that we encourage people to shop locally and support businesses in the county.”
However, the county’s Conservative group has criticised the scheme for restricting the hours of free parking.
And the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade is concerned that the council has still failed to address the key issue of people in North and West Northumberland having to pay for parking generally, while it is free in South East Northumberland.
A car parking strategy was adopted by the authority in July, but it failed to address the charging issue, and a model to determine which car parks may require controls was dropped.
Chairman of the Morpeth Chamber’s Car Parking Sub-Committee Charles Robinson said: “If we look back over the past three years there has been a continuation on the part of the council’s Administration to fail to get to grips with the real thorny issue.
“We know that stakeholders like the Chamber of Trade have tried desperately hard to work with the Administration to find a solution that would be fair to all parties concerned, but it is getting increasingly frustrating. This whole issue just seems to have dragged on and on and despite the multitude of reports that have been produced we aren’t a great deal further forward as to who is going to pay what.”
He added: “The politicians must take a lead. They should look at the situation and say ‘x’ should pay this, ‘y’ should pay that, and ‘z’ shouldn’t pay anything at all, but they haven’t done that.
“They talk constantly about fairness and yet they promote a divided county as to who pays what and how parking charges are applied. It is unbelievable.”
Mr Robinson said the chamber does not want to see traders in towns such as Ashington, Blyth, Cramlington and Bedlington suffer from crippling parking charges, but insists there must be a fairer system for those in Morpeth, Alnwick, Hexham and Berwick.
“It is a complete misunderstanding that Morpeth Chamber of Trade wants charges in South East Northumberland. We don’t, we just want a fairer system everywhere and we are open to discussion about what that might be,” he said.
The chamber is also concerned about proposals to introduce Sunday and Bank Holiday charges, and the recent increase in charging hours to 6pm in Morpeth.
Members say Northumberland’s councillors should look to Newcastle, which has introduced free parking after 5pm.
Mr Robinson said: “Newcastle City Council recognises the problems that Eldon Square and Eldon Gardens have with competition from the MetroCentre so it introduced this Alive After 5 initiative last year, providing 2,000 free car parking spaces after 5pm.
“The council recognised the problems so to help the retail heart of the city centre it took the car parking charges off in the evening.
“It beggars belief that our council has done exactly the opposite.
“We also can’t understand the intention to implement charges on Sundays and Bank Holidays when one of the primary aims of charging is traffic management. Where is the need for traffic management on Sundays and Bank Holidays? There isn’t one.”
The chamber has backed a proposal by the Conservative group for charges to be applied to car parks countywide, but where households would be eligible for two permits each to give residents free parking all day, every day across Northumberland.
A council spokeswoman said: “We are implementing the car parking strategy that was agreed by the council in July.
“We are currently examining local parking issues, including tariffs and the structure of controls in the county.”
l A report will go to the council’s Economic Prosperity and Strategic Services Scrutiny Committee on Monday that will recommend a countywide extension of the Morpeth shoppers’ permit, including the limited time periods.
There would also be restrictions on which car parks the permits can be used in, such as Stanley Terrace and New Market in Morpeth.
Households would be eligible for two permits, with a £15 charge each, that would be valid for two years. The council estimates it could lose up to £200,000 in car parking revenue through the scheme.
Scrutiny members are expected to send the report to the council’s Executive meeting in January for approval.