NORTH Somerset Council has insisted no decision has yet been made on whether to scrap free parking in Clevedon, Nailsea, and Portishead — despite councillors fearing it is a “foregone conclusion”.

The three towns currently have a number of free car parks, but North Somerset Council is considering introducing parking charges to these and some on-street locations. A six-week consultation with members of the public ran until May 7.

But at a full meeting of North Somerset Council on May 16, Oliver Ellis (Nailsea West End, Conservative) warned the council executive: “Trust in this council is almost non-existent and it’s been fed back to me this car park survey only adds to this.”

He asked Hannah Young (Clevedon South, Labour), the executive member for highways and transport: “What can the executive member say to the many people who believe that this consultation is not fair, it's leading, it's a foregone conclusion and that not enough places were given for people to attend in person sessions, limiting transparency?

Dr Young said: “The consultation was designed to help us to find out how people felt about specific aspects of the parking management strategy.

“Had we simply had a petition to say 'yes or no, do you want to have parking charges?', I think we would be fairly assured that people who currently have something for free would be fairly vociferous in saying that they would not like to pay for it.”

She added that she had also heard concerns about the consultation and the council would learn from it.

She said that the council had done “a great deal” to make in person sessions available, with some being busy and others less well attended.

Dr Young said: “I also take the point about trust in the council.

“I think we are trying very hard to be open and to consult and at an early stage with people when we are considering proposals in order to build trust that we are listening and that we are taking that feedback into account in the next stage of the process — and the proof will be in the pudding of what we do next with the feedback which we receive.”

She insisted that a decision on whether to introduce car parking charges had not yet been taken.

Ash Cartman (Long Ashton, Liberal Democrat) said: “So there is a scenario where the public don’t want it, the backbench councillors and scrutiny don’t want it, but the exec proceed?”

Dr Young told Mr Cartman: “I am sure it would make a very good headline, as previous council meetings have proved from some of your inputs, but it is not something I am prepared to pre-judge at this stage.”

She was handed two petitions from councillors representing Portishead and Clevedon against the introduction of the charges in each of their towns.

Presenting a petition with “a record number of 4,599 residents, business, and voluntary organisations,” against the plans for Portishead, Timothy Snaden (Portishead North, Portishead Independent) warned: “People who work in the high street see the charges as a tax on their jobs.

“They will struggle to pay the charges, as there is no real public transport alternative or they will have to find free parking on already clogged up surrounding roads.”

He added: “People will just not shop here if its not convenient to park. We’ve all done it, we end up going to Cribbs Causeway or elsewhere.

“This reduces income for the shops, causing a decline in footfall for the already struggling shops.”

Mr Snaden said that Portishead Lake Grounds, where charges are also proposed, is surrounded by steep hills and not served by public transport, and that the charges could discourage people from going there to exercise.

Presenting a petition with 2,474 signatures against the proposed parking charges in Clevedon, Michael Pryke (Clevedon Walton, Conservative) warned: “The introduction of parking charges will drive customers away from Clevedon’s centre to out of town shopping centres — as has already been mentioned by the previous speaker — where the parking is free.

“According to data from the British Retail Consortium, high street footfall can decrease by up to 14% following the introduction of parking charges. Furthermore, it’s not just about the economics. It’s about preserving what makes Clevedon unique.

“It’s vibrant brilliant independent retail sector that adds so much value and charge to our community.”

Addressing Dr Young and council leader Mike Bell (Weston-super-Mare Central, Liberal Democrat), Mr Pryke said: “You have spent so much time and effort trying to rebuild trust in the council in Clevedon. It has not gone unnoticed and you are doing some really good work.

“I really hope you will not destroy what you have started by introducing these parking charges.”