Politicians and business people are lining up to condemn Labour plans to abolish the Free after 3 parking discount which applies at certain council car parks in Chester and Ellesmere Port.
A report to go before next Wednesday’s (July 12) Cheshire West and Chester Council cabinet recommends a raft of measures including dropping free parking after 3pm.
This is despite a 12-week public consultation which revealed ‘strong opposition’ to its abolition although it is claimed people who attended drop-in sessions were ‘relatively happy’ once it was explained new initiatives would offer more choice.
There are other proposals to introduce ‘modest’ charges at Hoole, Frodsham, Northwich and Winsford to help ensure they are available for customers.
Cllr Margaret Parker, deputy leader of the Tory opposition group, believes axing Free after 3 will hit struggling retailers.
She said: “In 2008, the Conservatives under my leadership brought in Free after 3 which has been extremely successful. The shops were struggling at that time and I think they are struggling again at the moment, especially the market. I think to take that away would be another nail in the coffin.”
Cllr Parker was more open to listening to arguments over plans to introduce ‘modest’ charges in a place like Hoole if it could be shown it would deter commuters from using the car park and free up space for customers.
Former city centre manager Stephen Wundke, one of the pioneers behind the ‘Free after 3’ concept, believes shops will struggle if the initiative is abandoned in a forlorn bid to raise money for the cash-strapped council.
A perplexed Mr Wundke says the amount of cash that will be raised does not justify the political damage it will cause to the leading Labour group. He said: “I think it will be an utter disaster. I cannot understand it given the relative costs involved. I can’t think who would ever think of getting rid of it.”
Mr Wundke, who lives at Westminster Park, added: “My wife says she will never go into Chester because she won’t pay, she will go to other places where it’s free and at the moment she goes into Chester three times a week and buys things in the market, for example.
“If you multiply that by however many people feel the same way. Not one voice, judging by Facebook and Twitter, thinks it’s a good idea.”
Butcher Geoff Hughes, who operates in the market hall in Chester city centre, says he and fellow stallholders are already ‘struggling’ after the next door Princess Street bus exchange was closed.
Talking about proposals to axe Free after 3, he commented: “It’s another massive kick in the teeth.”
Mr Hughes understands one argument for abolishing Free after 3 is that it is adding to the evening rush-hour congestion. Against that background, his alternative option is to set up a shoppers’ car park during the day charged at £1.50 for two hours and £3 for more than two hours.
Keith McAllister, owner of Cafe Gate in Northgate Street, has also been hit by the bus station closure. He says the council appears to have listened to management at the new Storyhouse theatre who were ‘open minded’ about whether Free after 3 should stay or go because of concerns the discount scheme meant people coming to see a show couldn’t always park nearby when the city was at its busiest.
Mr McAllister said of the proposal to scrap it: “It’s going to make things worse. It’s just another nail, isn’t it?”
Council transport consultants Mott MacDonald claimed Free After 3 generated a peak in traffic movements due to motorists accessing car parks to take advantage of the free parking. However, analysis indicated these trips were overwhelmingly short stay implying a limited benefit to the wider economy in Chester.
Cheshire West Labour Party spokesman and Blacon councillor Ben Powell more or less conceded the raft of proposed parking measures were driven by financial reasons but had strong words for his Conservative opponents.
In a statement, he said: “Despite Tory anger about these changes, the financial plan that they left before the 2015 election shows that they were also planning to review parking across the borough. It was also their neglect over seven years in charge that left some of our car parks in such a poor condition.
“We understand that people will have concerns about paying for parking where it has previously been free, but sadly with savage Conservative cuts to local authority funding, difficult decisions have had to made.
“To be clear, the council is facing a budget black hole of £57m and despite the rhetoric that ‘austerity is over’, the position is not set to change. So we need to find ways that are fair and consistent to fund the investment that is needed and plug the budget deficit.
“We have tried to be as fair as possible to residents, businesses and visitors and believe that the strategy will improve the offer of the borough in the long-term.”