BALLYMONEY and Ballycastle residents, councillors and traders have voiced outrage over plans to introduce on-street car parking charges, saying it would ‘be another massive blow to an already dying economy’.
The Department of Regional Development put forward proposals in its budget to bring in on-street charges to 30 towns and cities around Northern Ireland including Ballymoney and Ballycastle.
Currently the system only operates in Belfast, Newry and Lisburn, but the DRD want to extend that.
They say it could raise millions in revenue, coupled with raising the fine from £60 - or £30 if paid within two weeks - to £90.
“This extension of on-street parking charges will provide a fair and equitable system that charges a reasonable fee for the prime parking locations in all towns,” a statement from the department said.
“This will also encourage the turnover of spaces available and therefore allow more vehicles and people to use town centres.”
However small retailers have expressed concern over the measures, saying shoppers will be forced to use large outlets with car parks instead of local stores.
“This seems to be another stealth tax,” said Glyn Roberts from the NI Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA).
“We have major concerns that these proposals will result in more shoppers being forced to go to out of town stores which offer free car parking. At a time when we should be encouraging more shoppers to our struggling town centres this is the wrong charge at the wrong time.
“Many of these towns already offer a one or two hour free parking before a fine is levied-what is wrong with that system?”
The DRD said its proposals have not been finalised and will go out to consultation once complete, however they hope the scheme will be rolled out during 2012/13.
In response Ballymoney Chamber of Commerce convened a meeting recently to address these concerns which were slammed by members.
Commenting Ballymoney Chamber President Winnie Mellett fumed: “This seems to be another money making exercise throught up by the Assembly and I would urge traders and local residents to resist it and write to the Roads Minister and MLAs.
“In this period of financial downturn, with increase in VAT and unemployment local businesses who are working hard feel they are being kicked when they are down. We have enough difficulties competing with larger towns and out of town centres where parking is free without our customers being hit with further parking charges.”
North Antrim DUP MLA Mervyn Storey agreed: “It is very regrettable that following the imposition of £4 billion in Tory/UUP cuts, DRD has brought forward this proposal in order to try to raise additional revenue.
“Less than a year ago there were those who were actively campaigning on behalf of the Tory cuts agenda for Northern Ireland. Proposals such as this are the end result of that foolhardy support for those cuts.
“I am concerned that Ballymoney will lose its remaining free car park. I believe that this has been an invaluable encouragement to people to shop in the town centre and then remain and spend money in a cafe or in shops other than those which they had already intended to visit.
“Traders in North Antrim are facing very severe difficulties as the economic realities bite home and government policy such as the recent VAT hike take ever more disposable income out of the pockets of shoppers.
“People are already facing up to massive increases in fuel costs. This is another increase on top of everything else and will be felt most keenly by those on low incomes or on benefits. Towns like Ballymoney need help – not ever more difficulties.”
Cllr John Finlay, also hit out at the Department for Regional Development, over its plans stating that this was a tax on those on low incomes and that it could hinder economic development in Ballymoney.
Cllr Finlay said: “I believe that increasing car parking charges is a huge mistake. This will prevent people from shopping on the High Street and push more and more people to out of town shopping centres hindering our economy recovery.
“I also believe that this is yet another tax being forced on those on low incomes, many of whom are disabled or have mobility problems. Those most vulnerable in our society have no other choice but to use their cars rather than public transport.
“This comes as a yet another blow for small businesses and the consumer after they were victims of the Tory VAT increase. This increase has affected us all in addition to the soaring price of fuel, to include heating oil and fuel for the car.
“This policy is a mistake and I am totally opposed to it. It will damage small businesses and keep people out of small towns when they can park free in many of the out of town shopping centres in the area.”
Prospective Independent candidate in the forthcoming Local Government election Iain McAfee has criticised the possibility of car parking charges claiming it will only mean more misery for already struggling traders in the town.
“For the DRD to argue that it would be a fair and equitable system in all towns does not take into account that the main street in smaller towns such as Ballymoney is the only option local people have to shop without travelling to other areas.
“Additionally they need to take into account that we face more obstacles when attracting larger businesses than towns such as Coleraine and Ballymena. The businesses in the town are not multi-nationals but generally smaller and locally run. Having spoken to several proprietors it is clear there is a genuine fear that this would further add to the problems they face. In my opinion the present system on one hour parking in every two is sufficient.”
Areas which could be affected: Antrim, Armagh, Ballycastle, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballynahinch, Banbridge, Bangor, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Comber, Cookstown, Craigavon (including Portadown and Lurgan), Derry, Downpatrick, Dungannon, Enniskillen, Kilkeel, Larne, Limavady, Lurgan, Magherafelt, Newcastle, Newtownards, Omagh, Portadown, Portrush, Portstewart, Strabane, Warrenpoint.