A consultation on the introduction of car parking charges in Alsager has been scrapped, after campaigners argued against fares being made a “cash cow”.
Cheshire East Council had been expected to launch a consultation on charging for spaces right across the borough at the end of this month, in an attempt to “standardise” the approach to charges and “deliver fairness”.
But town councillors from three different political parties in Alsager – one of the eight places in the borough where parking remains free – made their thoughts clear at a meeting of the Highways and Transport Committee on Tuesday.
Labour Coun Michael Unett, the chair of the town council, said: “Fairview Car Park is the only major car park in our town centre.
“It is also a multi-use car park, which means that charging to use it would have an impact on residents accessing services at the library, events at the Civic, council staff and visitors and the council, those using the sports centre, as well as the local foodbank.
“It would also have an impact on one of our local primary schools, that uses it as a pick-up and drop-off point.”
As well as the Fairview Car Park, charges would also be introduced at Fanny’s Croft, Well Lane and Station Road if the proposals were approved.
Some free parking would still be available in Congleton and Sandbach.
Coun Unett added: “During this process and even in this report, there has been constant talk of the need for fairness across the borough.
“Fairness is all well and good when you are in a much larger town, who are the recipients of regeneration with more car parks and less complicated circumstances than us.
“Some towns that would have charges introduced would still have some free car parks available, including five in Congleton and the Scotch Common in Sandbach. Alsager would have none.
“That is not fairness. You are not giving any compromise and the council is not helping its own reputation. There is little to no faith in Alsager that the council will listen to residents on this issue.”
Conservative town councillor Sue Helliwell was next to speak: “In 2019, residents of Cheshire voted for change, for an open and transparent council. The Labour manifesto stated that a review of car parking charges across the borough was planned and that the Labour group supports it because the current situation seems unfair.
“But how can this council promote vibrant town centres if it introduces car parking charges? You only have to look at Crewe and Macclesfield to see the demise of their town centres.
“The report before you is not fair, open and transparent. Residents have no faith in the consultations at Cheshire East Council. If this report gets through today, I would like full council to make the decision.”
Lib Dem Coun June Buckley told the meeting she felt so strongly about the issue that it was the first time she had ever felt the need to speak at a committee she was not a member of.
Coun Buckley said: “Already, a lot of speakers have alluded to things that concern me. I believe that parking charges have always been seen as a cash cow.
“I went to a briefing pre-covid and I seem to remember the people who were carrying out the car park research in this report said that car parking usage would be taken into account.
“How did they manage to get these figures? Because not long after that briefing, covid happened and all our car parks were pretty much deserted.
“Alsager has no alternative free parking for shoppers to use, so people will go elsewhere. Many of the surrounding towns in Cheshire East, Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle that charge for parking have basically died.”
Independent Coun Craig Browne, the council’s deputy leader who chaired the meeting, defended the consultation plans.
He said: “Not to consult would be an attempt to pre-judge what we think residents will tell us. In order to find out what residents want, we do have to ask the question and give residents the opportunity to respond. For me, these proposals are about fairness.
“As a council, we want to minimise council tax increases, but we also want to provide services. Those who use the service, should be the ones that pay for it.
“We want to invest in our public transport network, we want to invest in active travel, we want to invest in the regeneration of our towns, but all of this costs money.
“There will be cases where extra measures are needed to mitigate the impact of charging and we can and will listen to that, but in order to listen, we must first ask residents the questions.”
Coun Browne was one of five who voted in favour of the consultation, while eight councillors, including Alsager Lib Dem Phil Williams, voted it down.
Andrew Ross, the council’s director of highways, inferred that the failure to adopt the charges may have an impact on spending elsewhere.
He said: “Our medium-term financial strategy was approved in February, based on some assumptions to give the council a balanced budget.
“The decisions made here will affect that. You can see the numbers we are talking about – over one million pounds – so we would have to address that within the next budget assessment.”