Parking charges petition is heard as council considers next steps

Engagement with towns and parishes over proposals continuing until early March.

‘We don’t want to lose free parking, but we have tough choices to make’ – that was the message from Babergh councillors as a petition objecting to new tariffs was debated.

The council has proposed modest, short-term charges in Hadleigh, Sudbury and Lavenham - where parking is currently free for three hours - as it faces a £6.7million budget gap over the next four years.

The divisive subject has led to a petition containing more than 8,000 names objecting to the plans, which was discussed by the full council on Tuesday evening. 

After a passionate debate, it was agreed to note the petition, with the next steps now set to be considered. Engagement is also continuing with towns and parishes until early March.

Councillors recognised the concerns and said they would reflect on the debate.

Cllr John Ward, acting leader of Babergh District Council, said: “We would rather not introduce short-term parking charges, and it is no surprise so many people signed this petition objecting to them.

“We will obviously reflect on the comments from this debate. It is also important for us to continue seeking feedback from town and parish councils across the district, to ensure we get a complete picture of how people feel.

“However, it is important to stress we are legally required to balance our books. As it stands, we face a total budget gap of £6.7m in the next four years, with only £2.4m of reserves available. We are heading towards a financial cliff edge, and in this situation, it would be negligent of us not to consider all options.”

Cllr Deborah Saw, deputy council leader, added: “We are looking at all our spending and car parking cannot be exempt from that. If we do not take action then other services that people value and desperately need will be impacted. For example, we have leisure centres, provide funding to Citizen’s Advice and support the homeless – are these the sorts of things people think should be reduced instead? We don’t believe they do.

“We must recognise that we remain in a very serious financial position and hard decisions have to be made.”

The cost of subsiding free parking is expected to be more than £400K in the next financial year, and councillors have warned that avoiding a modest parking tariff would mean cuts elsewhere that would affect all our residents, whether they use the car parks or not.

Council leader Cllr Dave Busby, who has temporarily stepped down from day-to-day council duties while undergoing cancer treatment, said: “We are looking at very reasonable tariffs, and while we would rather not bring these in, we don’t believe they would deter people from visiting Hadleigh, Sudbury and Lavenham. 

“High street success is not defined by parking charges. It is decided by what they offer residents and visitors – and we believe that our towns are worth a modest parking fee to visit.”

Babergh has asked every town and parish council in the district, plus other recognised groups, to complete a survey giving their feedback, with officers keen to hear suggestions of how best to address parking charges in different areas. Responses are encouraged before the March 5 deadline.

A joint parking strategy for both Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils was agreed in September 2022, based on feedback from residents, town and parish councils as well as other community groups and partners.  As part of the strategy consultation, some 58% of respondents said they supported, or strongly supported, the introduction of flexible parking tariffs, particularly if regularly benchmarked to reflect the economy of the local area.

Proposed new tariffs will be reviewed by the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Community before coming back to Babergh’s cabinet in April.

Any surplus generated by the proposal would be reinvested in parking and sustainable transport for the district, and this could assist in improving first and last impressions of our towns for visitors.

The charges would also only apply to council-run car parks, with existing on-street parking remaining unchanged and blue badge holders still able to park in the council’s car parks for free. Babergh District Council will also continue to work with Suffolk County Council, as the highways authority, to prioritise blue badge parking for anyone who is mobility impaired next to main amenities within its town and village centres.

If short-term charges were introduced, this could also allow increased patrols not just of car parks, but also surrounding streets to safeguard residents’ parking.

Magdalene Road car park in Hadleigh