MORPETH could be hit with a hike in car park charges to give residents countywide free parking periods.
A proposal will go before Northumberland County Council’s Executive next week to introduce a county shoppers’ permit based on the present Morpeth scheme whereby holders can park free at quieter times of the day.
But officers say the move could reduce car park income by an estimated £200,000 and have suggested increasing charges to offset the loss.
The burden is likely to fall on Morpeth, Alnwick, Hexham and Berwick, where fees are currently applied, as there is no indication that hourly rates would be introduced to car parks in the south east of the county, which enjoys free parking.
Charles Robinson, who leads the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade’s Car Parking Sub-Committee, said: “This is a clear case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other.
“It would be highly regrettable if, to make up a shortfall of about £200,000, the council decided to load the car parking charges again just on those parts of Northumberland that are already paying parking charges.It will be increasing what is already a very sensitive problem.”
Mr Robinson said a better solution would be to introduce charges in towns such as Ashington and Blyth to cover the maintenance cost of their car parks, which are currently subsidised by the north and west centres.
“The cost of maintaining the car parks comes to about £1million for all of the car parks in all of the county, but only part of the county is paying charges.
“The people of the north and west are paying parking charges as a form of revenue that is used for maintenance of the car parks in the south east of the county,” he said.
“It doesn’t seem unreasonable at all if there is a shortfall of £200,000 that some of that, or all of it, should come from the south east.
“The council officers could work out what maintaining the car parks in south east Northumberland costs and look to recover that from the people who use those car parks. It could well come to the £200,000 sum they are talking about.”
He added that the charges could even exclude retail areas if fees were applied to coastal car parks, such as The Links at Blyth and Seaton Sluice.
The recommendation for a countywide shoppers’ permit has come from an all-party Car Parking Strategy Working Group.
It would provide for a maximum of two permits per household, for a charge of £15 each, allowing free parking between 9am and 11am and 3pm to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, as well as on Sundays and Bank Holidays.
Existing permit holders in Morpeth would be subject to new restrictions on which car parks they could use during the free periods, with proposals to limit them to Stanley Terrace and New Market.
The Northumberland Conservative group, which proposed free residents’ parking across the county at all times, said the scheme does not go far enough to support market towns.
Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “Once our proposal had not been supported by the working group, we supported the shoppers’ permit because that would seem to be a better interim position, but there are still significant problems with it. It doesn’t do anything to settle the problem of unfair charges throughout the county or the problem of charging on Bank Holidays and Sundays when there is no justification for charging at all.
“It is a very minor step that is being proposed. I think the administration needs to do an awful lot more to show that it is supporting our market towns.”
Coun Jackson was dismayed at suggestions to increase parking charges.
“The Lib Dem plan proves that they see car parking as a cash cow, but this is an unwarranted tax on county residents. It cannot be right that Morpeth residents, who already pay one of the highest rates in Northumberland, will be forced to pay even more,” he said.
He suggested that budgets could be balanced instead if the council offloads some of the 700 properties in its control.
Council Executive Member for Corporate Resources Andrew Tebbutt said no decision has been made on car park charging, but it will form part of budget considerations.
“The reality is that we have to balance budgets and the cost of introducing concessions, whatever they are, has to be met,” he said.
“We haven’t done all the sums yet, but the officers are telling us that if we introduce a shoppers’ permit across Northumberland it will cost us between £200,000 and £400,000 in lost fees.
“In Morpeth, car parking charges were kept down during the development of Sanderson Arcade and then went up, but they have very much been capped while inflation shoots up and costs shoot up. Car parks have to be maintained and repaired.
“I would be foolish to say we are not going to raise prices, but we haven’t yet made a decision.”
He added: “Our car parking charges are very low compared to many other parts of the country, which recognises the unique pressures of this county. If we talk about increasing charges it would be modest increases because that would be the only way to go forward.”
Coun Tebbutt said the council has already had to save £101million since local government re-organisation in 2009 and will be looking to cut up to £51million in the next three years.
The council Executive will consider the proposal on Monday.