Council reverses gear on scrapping free car parking

THE Council’s ‘Borough Partnership’ has u-turned on a decision to scrap free parking in two Tunbridge Wells towns after 80 per cent of residents opposed the plans.

The Lib Dem-led coalition Cabinet, which also consists of Labour and Alliance councillors, had planned to scrap the first free hour of parking at the Council-owned car park in Paddock Wood and the first two hours of free parking in Yew Tree car park in Southborough in favour of a 50 pence per hour charge.

But the moved sparked protests and petitions and even led to Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark blasting the plans as ‘damaging’ for the local businesses in the towns.

The backlash over the proposals saw the Lib Dem head of finance, Cllr Andrew Hickey, step down and leave the party to become an independent councillor earlier this year.

He has since been replaced with the Lib Dem councillor for Broadwater, Christopher Hall.

The Council launched a consultation into its proposal to scrap the free parking last month, which was aimed at plugging a growing deficit in the Town Hall’s finances that is set to rise to £3.4million a year by 2026.

As reported in last week’s Times, 80 per cent of residents who took part in the consultation said they opposed the plan to abolish free parking.

At a Cabinet meeting last Thursday (September 22), the Cabinet decided to scrap the plans.

While it introduced an increase in fees across other council-run car parks – which will see the first hour rise from around £1.50 an hour to £2 an hour and annual season tickets increasing from £50-80 a year – the Cabinet voted against its own policy of abolishing free parking in Paddock Wood and Southborough.

Instead, the Cabinet said it would seek ‘other options for funding’ that the Council will ‘engage with Southborough Town Council and/or Paddock Wood Town Council to discuss’.

In defending the u-turn, the new Cabinet’s head of Finance Councillor Chris Hall said: “Since my appointment as Cabinet member for Finance in August, I have been re-examining our in-year budget plans as well as our strategy on parking.

“I would like to thank everyone who participated in the parking fees consultation and who spoke up for residents at various public meetings. Consultation is an opportunity to listen to the views of the public we serve and take stock on Council decisions.

“As a new member of Cabinet, I have been able to look at this again and was pleased that we were able to reach an agreement to modify our initial proposal, by listening to businesses and residents about the impact on their areas,” Mr Hall added.

“While the main charges will need to go ahead in full, to ensure that we address a very significant budget deficit in future years, we will also engage with our colleagues in Paddock Wood and Southborough on how best to maintain the free parking their residents so clearly value.

“The Borough Partnership is committed to getting things right, and sometimes that means being willing to change our minds.”

The decision has been welcomed by campaigners and councillors in the two towns.

Independent councillor for Paddock Wood West, Matt Bailey, told the Times: “The residents and businesses of Paddock Wood were 100 per cent against the new parking charges, particularly ending the period of free parking.

“So they will be relieved this barmy idea has been dropped.”

Thew news comes after an earlier decision to start charging for parking at Dunorlan Park was also dropped by the Borough Partnership but the idea could resurface next year.

The Council has asked its officers to conduct an ‘informal public consultation’ to understand resident’s views on the ‘amenity value’ of the park, including the introduction of parking charges, which could be implemented in the 2023/24 financial year.

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