Shopkeepers and local residents have given Berwick Town Council a clear mandate to scrap parking charges from next spring.
The proposal received unanimous backing at a public meeting in the town hall on Tuesday night.
Struggling traders bluntly warned that to continue with the current parking charges would mean a slow death for the town centre. Bryon Longbone, a long-time retailer, said: “It would be hard to emphasise enough how much damage is being done to the economic viability of the town with what is seen by locals and near locals as the expensive parking.
“I hear comments on a daily basis about people who don’t come into the town any more because it is too dear. It’s causing horrendous damage to the town. It’s time to bite the bullet and have free parking.”
Parking fees in Berwick brought in almost £500,000 for Northumberland County Council in 2012/13.
But Bob ‘Taffy’ Tannant said: “If we don’t get free parking the loss to the local economy is far greater (than any loss of revenue from parking charges).
“For a very long time now there has been a perception that we have a parking problem and that is now entrenched so people no longer come into the town centre. By introducing free parking we can get rid of the idea that Berwick is not a place that welcomes its customers.”
A decision will be taken by the full town council on November 25 and, if agreed, free parking would be introduced at the start of the new financial year in April.
It is likely that time limits in car parks would be retained to help traffic management flows. If that happens, it was recognised that parking enforcement officers would still be needed.
Businessman Graham Exley said: “I think the opportunity for free parking is a no brainer. There are so many out of town shopping options offering free parking so just bringing the town centre into line with them would be of benefit.
“Lifting all restrictions would be ridiculous though. When the only free car park in Berwick, at Bridge Street, was an all day stay it used to be full all the time. We must retain a parking regime.”
Accountant Laurence Pearson said: “People wanting to park all day should be at the Quayside and Castlegate. We need to keep car park time limits in the town centre. By doing that we encourage a flow of traffic through the town and we really help businesses in the centre.”
Parking clocks could also be used for on-street parking, an idea favoured by Berwick Chamber of Trade, with visitors able to pick them up from shops.
The meeting was called by the town council to get local views on whether it should take up the county council’s offer of free parking, a commitment made by the new Labour administration in its election manifesto.
The process is aimed at ending what many regard as an unfair system of parking charges in Berwick, Alnwick and Morpeth while there is free parking in Ashington, Blyth and Cramlington.
Resident Jim Herbert said: “There needs to be equality. There shouldn’t be parking charges in Berwick if there are none in the south east of the county.”
David Wilson also pointed out that free parking is offered in towns north of the border such as Kelso and Galashiels which is taking trade away from Berwick.
If approved, Councillor John Robertson said free parking would be reviewed by the town council after nine months.
“If there is congestion we may look at bringing in some parking charges to reduce pressure in those areas where there is a problem,” he admitted. “However that is a problem we don’t face at the moment apart from a couple of weeks during the summer.”