POLL: Have your say over car parking charges in Dereham

Traders and councillors have issued a united 'keep parking free in Dereham' plea after Breckland Council announced it may consider introducing parking charges.

And now you can have your say by taking part in our online poll.

Dereham and the other Breckland market towns have always benefitted from free parking and many shoppers see it is a huge draw to visit the district rather than other towns and cities which charge.

But Breckland chief executive Terry Huggins has painted a grim picture of the council's financial position, with �3.5m needing to be found over the next five years from cuts or brought in through council tax rises or charges for services.

He 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.

However, the idea was immediately condemned in Dereham - and we want you to have your say.

We are holding a poll to see what local residents, shoppers and residents think.

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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.'

Dereham town councillor Timothy Birt said: 'Town centre parking charges are equivalent to Breckland Council subsidising Tesco's.

'Our thriving and bustling town has to be partly due to the freely accessible parking. We are a market town and rely on people visiting from the surrounding area. Introducing a parking charge is bound to affect how often people visit. While reducing car journeys is a good thing doing it this way is perverse.'

Mr Birt added: 'It hits the poorest the hardest and is in effect a penalty against visiting the town centre especially when the likes of Tesco have free parking.

'This old chestnut comes up every few years, let us hope Breckland Council looks at the wider consequences rather than just the pound signs for their coffers.'

Mr Huggins sent out a letter this week to town and parish councils and business groups and said: '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.

'The implications of charging for car parking are to be investigated. It will be for the elected members to chose how and from where the saving in public expenditure will be made. My aim is to ensure they have before them the best information on the available options.'

Mr Huggins said car parking costs at Breckland about �300,000 a year.

'There is no such thing as free car parking rather the issue is who should pay the cost. The general tax payer or the car user?'

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman commented on the Mary Portas review on high streets - and the prospect of parking charges.

'We need fresh thinking. I welcome Mary Portas' call for local solutions. Norfolk's traditional market towns and villages are the backbone of our economy and community, but our high streets are facing huge pressures.

'According to the British Retail Consortium 11% of town centre shops are standing vacant across the country, and in Norfolk the recent closure announcements from the Co-op and Chambers in Dereham further highlights the problem. My Constituency is made up of 110 villages and the four market towns of Attleborough, Dereham, Watton and Wymondham, and they all face the same pressures from fierce competition from online retailers, and out-of-town superstores. We need to help independent retailers compete and 'bring back the bustle' to our high streets, as the review puts it.

'We need to consider how best to balance value for money weekly shopping needs with the attractive heritage experience, locally sourced produce and arts and crafts required for tourism, and perhaps most importantly look at how joined-up town centre planning which incorporates retail, parking and public transport can attract people back to our town centres.'

In relation to the prospect of parking charges, Mr 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 and I welcome Breckland Council's comprehensive feasibility study and would encourage people to feed in their views.

'If and where charging is necessary we should look at all options for maximising convenient easy payment and rewarding frequent visitors and residents.'

*What do you think about the prospect of parking charges? As well as voting in our poll, you can also write to the Times, Bond House, High Street, Dereham, NR19 1DZ or e-mail ian.clarke@archant.co.uk.