POLL: Breckland Council could introduce car parking charges
Breckland Council has revealed it could start charging for parking in its market towns – a day after Queen of Shops Mary Portas said more free parking could help boost high streets.
The authority is set to carry out a feasibility study on introducing parking fees as it tries to plug a �3.5m funding black hole over the next five years,
Its five market towns – Thetford, Dereham, Watton, Swaffham and Attleborough – have always benefited from free parking and many shoppers choose them ahead of places which charge.
Breckland's idea was immediately condemned by some local councillors and business leaders as a 'disaster'.
Critics said the suggestion flies in the face of Ms Portas's conclusions in her government-commissioned report to help boost the nation's high streets.
But Breckland Council chief executive Terry Huggins said her report actually gave positive examples of charging to boost town centres, such as in Swindon and Chester.
He has written to all the district's towns and parishes outlining a gloomy picture for Breckland and said either cuts had to be made or money had to be found from council tax rises or charging for services.
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Mr Huggins is recommending a feasibility study should be carried out to look at the impact of parking charges and stressed no decisions would be made until consultations were completed.
'My recommendation to Breckland Council that they should consider reaching a better understanding of the potential of introducing car parking charges comes at a time when the council faces financial challenges greater than any they have ever faced before.'
Mr Huggins said car parking costs Breckland about �300,000 a year and added: 'There is no such thing as free car parking – the issue is who should pay the cost: the general taxpayer or the car user?'
Dereham Chamber of Trade and Commerce secretary, Stephen Cross, said: 'It would be an absolute disaster for Dereham. If it is sensible to charge for parking, why don't Tesco charge? Free parking has always been a big draw for Dereham and charging would put even more pressure on businesses which are struggling.'
Breckland district and Dereham town councillor Robin Goreham said: 'I think it is a supreme irony that the news has come on the same day that the 'Queen of Shops', Mary Portas, made recommendations to the government about the decline of high streets and highlighted the need for plentiful and inexpensive car parking.
'Car parking charges would cripple Dereham – it's the exact opposite of what we need right now. And in the long term, Breckland would lose out as well because there would be fewer retailers paying business rate and the vitality of the town would ebb away.'
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman added: 'Convenient, easy to use and well located car parking is a vital part of any town centre plan. Well planned links between public transport, car parking and town centres can do a lot to attract visitors... If and where charging is necessary we should look at all options for maximising convenient easy payment and rewarding frequent visitors and residents.'
Jon Clemo, Norfolk Rural Community Council chief executive said: 'It is entirely right, given the circumstances that district councils are in, to examine different ways of doing things and get the best value for their assets,
'But having said that, our market towns are critically important for the economy and a key component to make them viable is free parking,'
Attleborough mayor Karen Pettitt said the council would consider a response to the feasibility study at its next meeting in January, but believed the idea of introducing car parking fees would be unpopular.
'I do not think anyone is going to want to pay for parking but if we have to then I hope the charges will be very reasonable. Free parking is one of the saving graces of this town and is helping to keep the town thriving,' she said.
Ed Chambers, Thetford Town Council clerk, said: 'There's likely to be a review of the Thetford car park set-up early next year but I think the instinct of the councillors would be to discourage charges.
'Of course it does depend on the case and we do have a new set of councillors since May.'