FREE parking will be offered in Morpeth in the run-up to Christmas – and fresh moves are afoot to make it a permanent arrangement.
In a dramatic debate at County Hall last week, Northumberland County Council members voted 23-22 to waive parking charges in the week before Christmas to give a boost to market town traders. The Conservative motion was backed by the Labour group and will see free parking offered in Morpeth from next Tuesday to Christmas Eve.
Now Labour councillors are following up the victory with a new campaign and petition calling for parking charges to be scrapped permanently, unless town and parish councils specifically request them for their areas.
Group Leader Grant Davey said: “We think this is a simple matter of fairness and it’s not political.
“Towns like Morpeth, Berwick and Hexham shouldn’t be hit with what amounts to a stealth tax on motorists and soaked up by the county council to the tune of nearly £2million.
“At a time when businesses and customers are facing an unprecedented squeeze, we think the council should play fair with the whole county.
“We hope that residents and businesses will get behind our ‘fair’s fair’ campaign, which sends a message to the Liberal Democrats, particularly the three councillors in Morpeth, that the town deserves a helping hand in tough times, not a kick in the teeth.”
The group says the council has raked in more than £1.95million in fees and charges from car parks in the north and west towns, including Morpeth, while offering free parking in the south-east areas.
But Coun Davey said members are concerned that charges will be introduced to the likes of Blyth, Ashington and Cramlington in the Lib Dems’ budget proposals.
County Executive Member for Corporate Resources and Morpeth councillor Andrew Tebbutt said there are no plans to introduce parking charges to south-east Northumberland. And he said the free countywide parking proposal would cost the authority up to £5million.
“Clearly there is an election coming up so I’m not surprised by this campaign,” he said.
“The Labour group has always put forward budget proposals that I don’t think are achievable. My constant position ever since the first proposal for free parking across Northumberland was put forward is that I think they will find that with the pressure on local government finance they will have to make some very hard decisions in relation to other services if they persist with this. I think they will find that those cuts are unacceptable.
“The Liberal Democrat position is that car-parking charges are primarily about traffic congestion, they are not about income raising, but the service has to be funded. If we had free parking we would need more staff because the pressure on congestion will be greater. I suspect that we may be talking about finding £3.5million, but it could be as much as £5million.
“This proposal goes against the trend in the rest of the country where they are increasing charges in car parks because they know that is the only way they can fund good car parks.”
Coun Tebbutt added: “We are not putting charges into south-east Northumberland, that is a load of rubbish. The Labour group does not know what our budget proposals are, but we are certainly not proposing car-parking charges in south-east Northumberland because it is not viable to do so.
“The economies of Blyth and Ashington are the worst of all the key settlements in Northumberland. I would be delighted to see them creating sufficient traffic congestion that charges could be justified, but I don’t think we will see it in the current climate.”
The county’s Conservatives have already proposed free parking for all of Northumberland’s residents.
The Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade has welcomed the latest campaign for permanent free parking.
Chairman John Beynon said: “It is good news. I think everybody apart from the Liberal Democrats seems to recognise that parking charges do affect trade in the towns and it is unfair on the towns that do have car parking charges, such as Morpeth.
“The Liberal Democrats keep saying it doesn’t affect businesses. I don’t know how they know that because they don’t ask the traders.
“We are a non-political organisation, but we are supporting the Conservatives on their initiatives with car parking and the traffic lights, and any other political group that comes along with a proposal for free car parking we would support.”
Mr Beynon also spoke of his delight that parking charges will be dropped for the week before Christmas, especially as the chamber has been given assurances that time limits and other restrictions will still be enforced.
“It was a surprise to get this because we have never been given free parking for Christmas before, but anything that can help the traders is great,” he said. “We have written to the Parking Manager Lynne Ryan to say we hope that policing of parking will still be going on in the car parks to make sure that time limits are applied. We have been told that parking will be free, but the time limits will still apply. Our worry was that parking officers would be pulled out of the towns, but we have been assured they won’t be.
“I know the Lib Dems say this will cause chaos, but they can hardly say that when we have the Telford Bridge traffic lights causing as much chaos every day. It will be the lights rather than the car parks that cause chaos.”
The free Christmas parking offer was proposed by the Conservatives at a meeting of the council last Wednesday.
Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “One week of free parking ahead of Christmas will be a welcome festive boost for residents and businesses in Morpeth.
“In a world of internet shopping and free parking at out-of-town shopping centres, it is out of touch to expect people to pay for the privilege of parking to shop in our towns.
“Our proposal for free parking at Christmas has been warmly received by local traders, many of whom are now planning special promotions in order to make the most of the extra trade they expect free parking will attract.
“It is hard to understand how the Lib Dems could be so ungenerous as to oppose this and so arrogant as to tell our traders and residents that they are wrong to want free parking. We have got free parking for one week in the year, now we need free parking for residents all year round.”
The council’s Liberal Democrats have hit out at the Labour group for supporting the initiative after Coun Davey previously said it was ill-judged, too late and not thought out.
Coun Tebbutt said: “I am very disappointed with the attitude Labour has shown. They had initially planned to vote against this motion for sound reasons, but have completely contradicted themselves and decided to back the Conservatives’ ridiculous plan because it is more politically expedient.
“Now that the council has passed this policy we will have to find £40,000 from somewhere within our budget to fund it. I’d be interested to know what Labour and the Conservatives would like to cut to pay for this.”
A spokesman for the Labour group said: “Labour put forward a fully-costed motion seeking to introduce free parking last year and it was defeated. The Conservative motion introducing one week’s free parking didn’t go far enough, but we felt it was a start.”