Visitors could pick up the parking bill

FREE parking could be offered to residents across Northumberland – but visitors would have to pick up the tab.

The radical proposal has been suggested by the county’s Conservative group to break the deadlock on the controversial issue of parking charges.

Currently, fees are levied in Morpeth, Alnwick, Hexham and Berwick, but people can park free in south east Northumberland, putting businesses in the rural market towns at a major disadvantage.

Under the new suggestion, charges would be applied to council-run car parks countywide, but residents would be eligible to apply for two permit discs, registered to specific vehicles for a one-off charge of £15 each, which would enable them to park free all day, subject to the time limits on individual car parks.

However, visitors would have to pay in order to meet the £1.2million running costs of facilities.

Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “The issue for Northumberland must be to encourage and support our town centres.

“No longer should people feel that they should drive past Morpeth to Cramlington for the sake of free parking; no longer should Tynedale residents drive straight past Hexham for free parking at the Metrocentre; no longer should residents in Alnwick and Berwick feel they are being milked for money.

“The free parking disc is a practical way forward that meets all the basic requirements of a car parking strategy.”

Details of the plans were revealed at an extraordinary meeting of Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade on Monday, which was also attended by business representatives from Alnwick, Hexham and Berwick.

Other proposals include:

l Free parking for all on Sundays and Bank Holidays.

l Charges should only cover the cost of management and maintenance of car parks, not generate profit.

l There should be fairness in charging, with the same hourly rates applied to similar car parks in different communities.

l Local consultation should take place about car park management, including time limits.

l All towns and villages with less than 200 spaces should be exempt from charging.

Coun Jackson said that currently just over £3million a year is generated from parking charges in Northumberland, with £1.2million covering the costs and £1.8million profit.

He said the loss of revenue could be accommodated in existing budgets, which have about £2million of spare capacity, but non-permit holders would face parking charges of around 50p per hour to meet the running costs.

“It is a view that we hold very strongly that charges should be there to cover the cost of managing and maintaining the car parks, but they shouldn’t be seen as a cash cow or a form of taxation,” he said.

“There is a need to pay for the £1.2million cost of maintenance and management. That is why we are finding it difficult just to say we will have free parking everywhere because it is not fair.

“If there was no charging then the council taxpayer would end up with the whole bill and that is not fair on non-drivers.”

A war of words has been raging for more than three years about the inequality in the current parking regime and last winter almost 3,000 people signed a petition led by the Morpeth Herald and our sister paper the Northumberland Gazette calling for an end to the unfairness.

In July a move by the county’s Labour group for all car parking charges to be scrapped was blocked when it failed to win the support of rival parties.

And the council’s ruling Liberal Democrat administration is considering maintaining the Morpeth shoppers’ permit, or even extending it countywide, which allows free parking periods for holders at quieter parts of the day.

But Coun Jackson said the scheme is inadequate.

“The shoppers’ permit is not a perfect system, there are problems with it,” he said.

“It allows two hours free in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, but there is an hour still charged for in the late afternoon. It just doesn’t suit people.

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“It was popular when it was first introduced, but the take-up has reduced in recent years because the time constraints are too much for people.”

However, he said short, medium and long stay limits would be placed on individual car parks in his proposal as part of traffic management.

He stressed that free parking for residents is vital as the market towns are facing competition from free supermarket parking, as well as from south east Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle and the Metro Centre, and particularly highlighted the problems in Berwick, which has some of the lowest incomes in the county, but the highest parking charges.

“The current situation is unsustainable. It has been a problem for three years now and it is just getting worse year on year. We have to do something to tackle the unfairness,” he said.

“If we carry on with the current strategy our rural market towns are threatened with death. They are dying on their feet because local people are not using them for their main purposes.”

He will present his proposals to an all-party car parking working group at the council as soon as possible, with unanimous backing from local trade organisations.