Row about parking fees could end in free-for-all

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MOTORISTS could yet get free car parking throughout the county in line with south east Northumberland.

County council members had revolted against rubber-stamping a parking strategy currently causing friction between rural and urban areas.

A scrutiny committee had insisted on calling a meeting last week to ensure the policy was fully discussed by councillors before being approved, but an amendment by the authority’s Labour group has put the issue back in the melting pot.

Its proposal that any changes to the strategy be delegated to a cross-party working group – subject to scrutiny by a committee and acceptance by the executive – was approved.

It also called on the council to keep free parking in the south east of the county and extend it across Northumberland.

The county inherited a mix of free and paid-for car parks from the abolished district councils.

Chief executive Steve Stewart warned members against supporting universal free parking because such a move had not been properly assessed.

“You are leaving yourselves open to serious legal challenges,” he said, but former council leader Ian Swithenbank, of Cramlington East, dismissed that warning as “outrageous and ridiculous”.

Sixteen councillors voted in favour of universal free parking and 16, mainly Conservatives, abstained, but the move was defeated as 21, mostly Liberal Democrats, voted against it.

Labour group leader Grant Davey, of Kitty Brewster in Blyth, said the proposal was all about fairness.

“We believe it’s affordable now,” he said. He claimed a council spending several hundred million pounds a year could afford £1.6m “because we are destroying the economy of the county through parking”.

Coun Davey added: “The poor people of Berwick gave us a million quid out of their pockets, over and above council tax, and for what? There is something intrinsically wrong with that sort of policy.”

Executive member Alan Thompson, of Newbiggin, said it would be “rash in the extreme to rush into a decision on something that has not been investigated thoroughly”.

Conservative group leader Peter Jackson, of Ponteland, claimed parking was being used as a cash cow by the council – an allegation refuted by council leader Jeff Reid.

“It makes my blood boil when people accuse us of using this as a cash cow,” said Coun Reid, of Blyth.

Most outspoken against universal free parking was former Alnwick District Council chairman John Taylor.

“It’s very unfair to expect the general council taxpayer to pay for the motorist’s privilege to park his car where and when and how he will,” said Coun Taylor, of Longhoughton.