It is no surprise Babergh District Council’s decision to stop subsidising free parking in Sudbury, Hadleigh and Lavenham has provoked such a passionate debate.

The decision to introduce modest charges for short-term parking from later this year was a painful, but necessary, one – and here is why.

Parking is currently free for three hours in Sudbury and Hadleigh, and free all day in Lavenham. Why change this?

Subsidising free parking costs Babergh about £425K a year, and that is rising. This is funded by all taxpayers in the district, whether they use car parks or not.

We don’t want to end free parking, but Babergh is staring down the barrel of a £6.7million budget gap in the next four years. We have only £2.4million of reserves available.

We are an efficient, well-run council and have been making savings. But even with those savings, and these new parking fees, we will not close the budget gap.

If we don’t balance our books, we would effectively be bankrupt. We have seen at Birmingham City Council and Nottingham City Council how catastrophic that is. Hundreds of job losses, devastating cuts to services and, in Birmingham’s case, a 21% council tax rise over two years.

If you didn’t introduce parking charges, how else could you bridge the budget gap?

These charges will only help fund part of our gap. If we don’t introduce them we will have to make even bigger cuts to other non-statutory services – for example, leisure centres, funding for community groups supporting vulnerable people in our communities, maintenance of our parks and public areas. This, in our view, is far less palatable than a modest charge to use our carparks.

What will the new charges be, and when will they start?

In long stay car parks, it will be £1 for two hours, with a reduced price of £2.50 for all-day parking (down from the current £3-a-day). In short stay, it will be £1 for the first hour. These are below neighbouring authorities’ charges.

East Anglian Daily Times: Babergh council leader John WardBabergh council leader John Ward (Image: Sarah Lucy Brown)

Changes are likely to be introduced before the end of this year, by which time we will also have a number of refund or permit arrangements in place, for example, for our leisure centre users and some doctors’ surgeries.

Won’t charges deter visitors from the High Street, causing businesses to close?

Our charges are so low we do not believe that will be case. There is no evidence from other towns that this would happen. We believe that Sudbury, Hadleigh and Lavenham are fantastic places and are confident that people will still want to visit them, rather than spending extra on fuel to go further afield and still having to pay more to park when they get there.

Why hasn’t more consideration been given to retaining one-hour free parking or letting someone else run the car parks?

Retaining an hour’s free parking would cost the council up to £262K in lost income per year – and in our financial position, that is significant. It would also further complicate parking enforcement in car parks and surrounding residential streets.

In terms of outsourcing our car parks – the town councils do not want to take them over, and we believe any other business model, even a community interest company (CIC), would still have to charge users to be viable and may lead to much higher charges we can’t control.

Why have you ignored the 8,000 people who signed a petition against the new charges?

We haven’t. The petition was debated by the full council and considered by cabinet, and we have always understood the depth of feeling.

However, the petition gave a binary choice. If asked ‘would you like to pay for something you previously received free’, we would all say no. The petition did not present people with any facts about the alternatives or serious consequences of not implementing new charges.

Why hasn’t there been more engagement and consultation?

We carried out extensive consultation as part of our parking strategy in 2022, when some 58% of respondents said they supported the introduction of flexible parking tariffs, particularly if regularly benchmarked to reflect the local economy.

As well as funding our car parks, this would also then help us to tackle other issues that are important to residents - better on-street parking enforcement, more sustainable travel and community transport options, and improving the quality of our car parks.

Since then, we have sought feedback from every town and parish council in Babergh on these proposals and welcomed suggested solutions from all interested parties. We debated the petition at full council, Overview and Scrutiny Committee added an additional 11 recommendations, and we have incorporated as many suggestions as viable into our plans.

Will tariffs rise next year?

It is not the council’s intention to revisit this within the next couple of years, and even then, we will continue to benchmark prices against other local towns and authorities. We are not a London Borough and car parking is not our ‘cash-cow’.

The decision has been ‘called in’ by those opposing the new charges. What does this mean?

Call in is an important part of our constitution, providing a way for councillors who do not sit on cabinet to ask that a decision be reviewed. Call in cannot overturn a decision, but further scrutiny will hopefully provide useful additional reassurance that we have considered all options and have followed the process correctly in reaching this decision.

Cllr John Ward is acting leader of Babergh District Council.