Ahead of the first weekend of the festive season, local Conservatives have hit out at the decision of the Labour-run Monmouthshire Council to scrap the county’s long-running scheme to attract more shoppers into the county’s town centres at Christmas.
The policy of free parking and free bus travel at weekends in December has been ditched, apparently without any engagement with town centre businesses, whose Christmas trade could be affected.
The decision, which will save the Council £20,000, was made by the Council’s cabinet, made up of seven Labour councillors and one Green councillor, but has attracted criticism from a group of Conservative county councillors including Pen Y Fal ward member Cllr Maureen Powell, Gobion Fawr Councillor Alistair Neill, Cllr Tony Kear, who represents Llanbadoc and Usk ward and Conservative Group Leader Cllr Richard John.
Parking charges were increased earlier this year to £1.80 for up to two hours at all council-owned car parks in Chepstow, Monmouth and Abergavenny.
In September, the Council revealed it had shelved its planned review of parking charges, but no mention was made of any plans to scrap Christmas free parking or bus travel.
The decision to axe free parking and free bus travel appears to conflict with the council’s Corporate Plan which listed amongst its six key priorities ‘A Thriving and ambitious place, where there are vibrant town centres, where businesses can grow and develop’ and ‘A Green place to live and work, with reduced carbon emissions.’
All bus passengers over the age of 60 are entitled to a free bus pass, while bus fares are discounted for 16-21 year olds, so opposition councillors have made the point that providing free bus travel for all on limited days in December has a limited cost to the council.
Measures to encourage town centre footfall for traders at Christmas was introduced under the Council’s previous Conservative administration.
Last year, the scheme was welcomed by Welsh Government Minister Lee Waters who said the scheme ‘will not only help families make savings during a cost of living crisis on the lead-up to Christmas, but it will provide a boost to the bus industry and local economy.’
Cllr Maureen Powell said, “For many years we’ve had free parking in the run up to Christmas to help families and support town centre traders.
“This decision is such a shame because it means everyone will have to pay full price for parking right up until Christmas and this may send shoppers elsewhere or perhaps even online, threatening our high streets.”
Cllr Alistair Neill added, “This has always been a relatively low-cost demonstration of support for our county towns and it is such a disappointment that this year there is no help in place.”
Cllr Tony Kear said, “Usk in my ward is one of the few communities that has free parking and the recently reformed business community group, which I’m proud to lead, recognises the value of free parking schemes to local traders and the impact it has on footfall.
“It’s incredibly frustrating that this administration just can’t see the bigger picture at this crucial time of year for high street businesses.”
Cllr Richard John added, “I’m really disappointed that senior councillors have decided to scrap this scheme, which supported our town centre businesses, encouraged families to have a fun day out in our towns and supported our local bus services.
“Free parking and free bus travel were fairly cheap schemes relative to the council’s budget of a quarter of a billion pounds, but we know they were valued by council taxpayers, who saw a 6 per cent rise this year and could be in line for rises of at least 25 per cent over the next two years if Welsh Government pursues its proposed changes to council tax.
“I would say to these Labour councillors, don’t be Scrooges this winter – please reinstate free Christmas parking and free bus travel for our residents.”
A spokesperson for the county council has responded saying, “MCC recognises the importance of Christmas festivities to our town centres, bringing people together and adding to the trade of town centre businesses. The county council will work with the town councils, churches, voluntary groups and local businesses to promote the Christmas lights, festivals and parades – every opportunity to bring our communities and businesses together.
We were able to offer free bus transport last Christmas thanks to securing one-off additional support from the Welsh Government, but this is not available this year. Similarly, due to inflation impacting the cost of delivering council services including social care, the council cannot offer free weekend parking. We will monitor this impact on the use of car parks and town centre footfall.”