Breckland Council to press ahead with sudy into parking charges for Thetford, Dereham, Attleborough, Swaffham and Watton

Breckland Council has agreed to carry out a feasibility study on ending free parking - but are limiting spending on research to �25,000.

The ruling cabinet had a 45-minute debate on the idea of introducing parking charges in Thetford, Dereham, Attleborough, Swaffham and Watton.

The authority spends about �300,000 a year on its 28 car parks and needs to plug a �3.5m black hole in its spending over the next five years.

Since the possibility of charging was first mooted last month, Breckland has faced widespread opposition, especially to the idea of spending �50,000 on a feasibility study.

Breckland Labour group leader Terry Jermy said parking charges would be 'a disaster' for the market towns, many of which are already struggling.

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'Free parking is a major advantage for the town centre retailers against the ever-increasing dominance of the supermarkets, out of town centre retail spaces and online sales.'

He said the shop vacancy rate for Swaffham is 17pc and Thetford is 12pc, whereas the Norfolk average is eight pc.

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'There is no doubt that the introduction of car parking charges will reduce the number of visitors to our high streets and ultimately it will reduce the economic viability of these areas.'

William Nunn, leader of the Conservative-controlled council, said Breckland was having to look at every aspect of its spending but he stressed the study did not mean charges would be brought in.

'Whatever decision is made will be incredibly difficult.'

He challenged chief executive Terry Huggins about why the initial estimate of �50,000 for consultants to carry out a feasibility study was needed.

Mr Nunn said he had been 'alarmed' when he first heard the figure,

Mr Huggins said that had been an early indication of the cost but a reappraisal showed it could be done more cheaply and by using more Breckland officer time rather than consultants.

He said Breckland was facing financial constraints 'like never before' which meant tough decisions had to be made but understood the concerns about the impact on town centres.

Keith Gilbert said he 'strongly opposed' parking charges.

'Free parking has always been one of the jewels in the crown of this council. It attracts people from outside Breckland who would have to pay for parking in their areas.'

Shirley Matthews said the Breckland towns were all different and said places like Swaffham could need different treatment to others.

Philip Cowan said it was crucial for Breckland to clearly communicate with residents about what was planned.

'The issue is that whilst the proposal is to target the person using the car park, if the motorist goes somewhere else then it will be a hit for all people.'

*Mrs Matthews apologised for being late for the meeting - after stopping to join in a BBC Radio Norfolk phone-in about the parking charges issue.

She said she had heard another Swaffham councillor on the radio making an 'irksome comment' and felt she had to 'put him right.'

But Mrs Matthews did not have her mobile phone with her so had to stop at the Fransham Farm Shop to ask to borrow a telephone to ring the station.

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