FREE parking should be brought into Morpeth immediately using existing ticket machines, business leaders say.
The call has come from the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade in a bid to send a positive message to shoppers while the disruptive one-way traffic system is in place.
Morpeth Town Council has already agreed that free parking using a disc system should be adopted from April 1, which is set to go to Northumberland County Council for approval in the next few weeks.
However, the chamber says that charges could be dropped instantly if the existing car-park machines are set to zero charge, but still issue tickets to enable the enforcement of time limits.
Car Parking Sub-Committee Chairman, Charles Robinson, said: “There is an alternative to Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and discs that could be implemented sooner. That would be to leave the ticket machines in place and just put them to zero tariff. You could get free car parking with an official notification on the dashboard for the enforcement officer to check the times.
“That could happen overnight, there is no problem at all. You don’t have to ask the public to go to a shop to get a disc and you don’t have to explain it. You just get a ticket with zero charge.”
The proposal came after chamber members spoke of the need to set a positive tone for Morpeth at a time when many shoppers and visitors may be thinking of staying away to avoid disruption from the one-way traffic system.
Member John Beynon said: “It is only 10 to 12 weeks before the free car parking comes in anyway, so let’s go to the county’s Labour administration and see if it cares more about Morpeth than the LibDems did and gives us free parking now. We could then put a positive spin on things.”
He added: “I think using the ticket machines would be a fantastic idea. It is a lot easier for people to flick a disc to cheat the system than to get a ticket.
“We have a proposal to get in touch with the administration to say we want free car parking now. We now have a proposal for something that could do this for tomorrow. They could change the machines so we get free parking instantly.”
The idea of using the existing machines was initially suggested to Sanderson Arcade Manager Medi Parry when she attended a tourism meeting in Bamburgh. She has since spoken to county council officers to try to determine the costs. She said: “There are a couple of options, one of which is to have these pay-and-display machines in operation in the short-stay car parks only, without charge, which straight away takes away some costs.
“It costs about £400 per year to run each machine and there is also the cost of the tickets. One way we could overcome the cost is to find a sponsor to put on the back of the tickets. I’m sure there are discussions to be had on this.”
The chamber had been due to discuss the possibility of the town adopting an ANPR system, which would use cameras to log vehicles moving in and out of car parks and send an alert to enforcement officers about anyone staying longer than the time limit.
Supporters of the scheme said it would be simple and could ensure that no one abuses the car parks by changing disc times.
However, Mr Robinson said there was no point in having the debate as the idea has been soured by misinformation.
“When we looked at the comments and letters in the newspapers and social media it was pointless us trying to discuss at length the advantages and disadvantages of the scheme when faced with the misinformation that has been put out,” he said.
“I remain concerned that come April 1 we could have a situation where people aren’t using the car parks properly and workers are using the short-stay car parks and clogging them up.
“The chamber has a responsibility and business leaders have a responsibility to advise staff that if shoppers can’t get into the car parks they aren’t going to have a job in six months’ time.”
Ms Parry said the arcade is also concerned.
“We have spoken to our tenants and we know that people who work in Morpeth will use their discs in a short-stay car park,” she said.
“We have 420 employees at the arcade and it is a big struggle trying to get people to park in Staithes Lane car park.
“We are doing all we can to work with the Town Team to bring visitors into Morpeth and we want the experience for them to be as simple as possible. We don’t want to create any barriers.
“We want to look at all the options to see how these car parks can be managed in the best way for Morpeth.”
Chamber member Les Sage said: “I think we should knock the camera recognition idea on the head now and forever. I would campaign 100 per cent to stop a camera system coming in.
“We have got to have something that is countywide. If you end up with different systems in different towns you haven’t achieved anything.”
And Ken Stait said: “We need to make it as easy as possible for customers to get into Morpeth, but also it has to be deliverable by April 1.
“I propose that the chamber is in favour of using the existing ticket machines on a zero charge tariff to enable free car parking immediately.”
The proposal was approved.
The chamber has written to Morpeth Town Council seeking its support for the idea.
Northumberland County Council’s scrutiny committee will consider free parking proposals next week, based on them coming in from April.
A council spokeswoman said: “It has always been the intention to introduce free parking from April 1, subject to the agreement of local communities.
“The report will go before the Policy Board on February 11 for discussion. Budgets have been drawn up for the next financial year to take free parking into account.”