Row over call to scrap Exeter free parking trial so loos can be reopened

A row has broken out over a call to scrap a trial of free parking in Exeter on Thursday nights  – and reopen public toilets instead. 

Last summer, Exeter City Council announced motorists could stop off at the Guildhall, John Lewis and Mary Arches Street car parks for free after 6pm on the fourth night of the week.

The trial was due to last for a year – with officers anticipating it will cost the authority £35,000 of income.

Green Party member Councillor Diana Moore, who represents the St David’s ward, has called for the scheme to be scrapped and for shut loos to be reopened instead.

But council leader Phil Bialyk blasted the comments as a ‘political PR stunt’ and ‘a short-sighted and misunderstood attempt to car shame the people of Exeter’.

In September last year, Cllr Moore had asked about the amount of income foregone by the authority since the free parking was introduced.

She also wanted to know if there had been a rise in car park users in the same period of time.

The response, which was only received in December after further prompting, explained that a £35,000 loss was projected.

It added: “We obviously have not had a full year yet, but our estimate is based on a projected 8,000 transactions after 6pm at £4.40 each (two hours), so we’re losing in the region of £35,000 per annum during the 12 month trial period.

“We’ve had a small (three per cent) increase in numbers using the multi-story car parks on Thursday night and, overall, we’ve had a reduction in numbers of users of our car parks, although city centre footfall has remained the same.

“There are likely to be a wide number of reasons for this, but once we have a full year’s data, we will be able to analyse further.”

Cllr Moore said: “The city council has revealed that it is set to lose at least £35,000 as a result of offering free parking.

“This has increased car journeys into the city centre on Thursday evenings, adding to congestion and air pollution, but without any apparent increase in the use of city centre shops.

“So the council is losing vital revenue, and there is a cost to our environment and health which is suffering from the extra car journeys while city centre businesses appear to be gaining nothing from the policy.

“This is a no-win move – it’s time to scrap free parking on Thursday evenings.”

She has since written to Cllr Bialyk demanding that free parking on Thursday evenings be scrapped and the city toilets – shut last summer – be reopened.

Members voted last April to close 15 of the 26 loos that the city council operates in a bid to save £60,000. A total of 11 public conveniences are still available.

Cllr Moore added: “It seems the council would rather offer free parking than free toilets.

“This is a case of distorted priorities and an extra £35,000 could certainly help fund the reopening of some of the city’s toilets.

“Public toilets are important to many people, but especially the elderly, young children, pregnant women, those who may have incontinence problems and people who are homeless.”

Cllr Bialyk said: “I was sent an email by Cllr Diana Moore asking for a meeting regarding this matter only last Friday.

“I have an open door for people of all parties who genuinely want to solve and tackle the issues this city faces.

“I did not anticipate that it was simply a political PR stunt and, sadly, this is a short-sighted and misunderstood attempt to car shame the people of Exeter and surrounding areas.

“The trial was about trying to offer an alternative to shopping on a Saturday and to give workers a chance to benefit from our city centre.

“It was about offering an alternative so people could stay longer into the night.

“We wanted to see if this could prevent another journey in the first place and, if not, reduce congestion by varying the time people left.

“All our surface car parks in the city are free at night.

“People will already know Devon County Council, who operate a huge amount of Exeter’s city centre parking spaces, operate a widely used free on-street parking at off peak times.

“This trial simply added our multi-story facilities to see if continuity helped. And we were always going to review it.

“We are a council that are fully committed to a 2030 carbon neutral agenda whilst looking to save nearly a third of our budget.

“I remain committed to working with everyone, including Cllr Moore, but regret her decision to conduct council business in this way.”

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