Free parking periods in the region’s Pay and Display car-parks look like becoming a thing of the past as Aberdeenshire Council tries to balance its books.
Instead, under a proposed new tariff scheme to be reviewed in a year’s time, motorists will face a 50p charge for the first hour followed by £1 for 1-2 hours, £3 for 2-5 hours and £5 for more than 5 hours.
A full meeting of Aberdeenshire Council yesterday (Thursday, January 17) debated the controversial issue at length, but in the end the Administration’s motion was successful by 37 votes to 25.
That decision now paves the way for a schedule to go out with an Aberdeenshire-wide Off-Street Parking Order for statutory consultation.
But crucially the proposals will also go out to public consultation which will give local residents, businesses and community groups the chance to have their say on the proposed changes.
Councillors were reminded that the authority is facing a projected £211,000 car-park budget deficit for the current financial year.
They heard that prior to the introduction of the free tariffs in 2014 there were around 800,000 transactions annually in its car parks, but while that has risen to 1.3 million in 2017/18, some 80 percent were free.
Head of transportation Ewan Wallace said that running the off-street car parks was now being done at a deficit and was putting “pressure on other council departments”.
He said officers had examined various scenarios and were convinced that the dropping of free parking and the introduction of smaller charges would be the most effective way to reduce the funding gap.
Opposition Partnership leader Richard Thomson proposed retaining a 30-minute free parking slot, with charges of £2 for up to two hours, £3 for 2-3 hours, £5 for 3-5 hours and £7.50 for five hours to be reviewed after one year.
A last-minute counter-amendment from Councillor Martin Ford for a 15-minute free period and revised tariffs to be reviewed in six months was unsuccessful in reaching the final vote.
Prior to the debate, the meeting heard from a trio of business group representatives from Inverurie, Stonehaven and Banchory.
Derek Ritchie of ‘We Are Inverurie’, stressed the importance retention of the free period would have on local High Street businesses.
He said the 30-minute period currently enjoyed by Inverurie – the only town to show a surplus in income from its car-parks – should be run out across the Shire.
Ian Philip of the Stonehaven Business Association said the rationale behind the proposed changes was “flawed” and warned that the proposal would prompt a “risk to footfall” and businesses.
He said at a time when the opening of the AWPR would encourage both national and international visitors to the area, any thought of losing the free parking element was “counter-productive” to the long-term economic growth of the area’s towns.
Warning that one solution would not fit all towns across Aberdeenshire, he said free parking in town centre was vital to ensure fair competition for out-of-town supermarkets and outlets which all offered free parking.
Echoing those sentiments, Dick Taylor of Banchory Business Association said councillors should consider “very carefully” the immense consequences the changes would have on businesses in small towns.
Depute council leader Peter Argyle said he had recently held “positive talks” with representatives of business groups in Inverurie and Peterhead and has offered to meet with others to explain the thinking behind the proposals.
But he added: “I recognise the concerns, but we have no choice. There is no such thing as free parking – someone has to pay for it.”
He stressed that around 75% of all off-street parking and 100% of on-street parking remained free and there was no proposal to change that.
Fraserburgh councillor Brian Topping was concerned that the loss of free parking would force motorists to park in streets outside the town centre to avoid being charged – creating problems in residential areas.
Cllr Topping, who formally noted his dissent at the final vote, assured North-east communities: “Don’t think this is a fait accompli – get involved in the public consultation.”
His fellow Broch councillor Charles Buchan said a local accountant had told him the loss of free parking could cost each business in the town as much as £4,000 in takings – a potential £200,000 annual loss to town centre trade to recover around £10,000 in parking revenue.
Banff councillor Glen Reynolds queried why such a decision could be made without the benefit of an economic buisness impact assessment and asked why the voices of businesses were not being heard.
Blasting the Administration’s proposal, Garioch Councillor Neil Baillie asked: “Why as a council would we want to threaten the economic vitality of local businesses?”
Councillor Stephen Calder raised the issue of illegal parking in many of Peterhead’s town centre streets which would only be aggravated by the loss of free parking.
The council was assured by Mr Argyle that there would be further discussions around decriminalisation to tackle such problems in the coming months.
Speaking after the meeting Cllr Thomson (Ellon & District) expressed his disappointment at what he described as a "slap in the face" for local residents and businesses.
He said: “We’re very disappointed at this outcome, which amounts to a slap in the face for businesses and residents across Aberdeenshire.
“The objective for running a council car park shouldn’t be to make or lose money. The objective should be to break even, in order to support economic development and access to services and retail. We voted to keep a free half-hour period across Aberdeenshire because we believe it is possible to do that and still cover costs.
“The ruling administration of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and 'Aligned Independent' councillors has instead gone for what it imagines is a 'safety first' approach to plugging the car park financial deficit. In fact, their plan risks a multi-million pound economic displacement in our town centres, out of all proportion to the revenue gap that the new charges are meant to plug.
“I’m sorry that the Conservatives, Lib Dem and Aligned Independent administration councillors weren't able to support our common-sense position. It’s a very disappointing day and ultimately it will be our town centres that suffer.”
It is likely the new parking arrangements will be introduced in early-autumn.