Torridge councillors have rejected a motion calling for two months of free parking in council-owned car parks.

Torridge District Council’s (TDC) community and resources committee felt exploring options for two hours of free parking in town centres would be more beneficial for traders during a lengthy virtual meeting on Monday (July 11).

The committee was meeting to discuss a motion from Councillor Dermot McGeough to allow free parking for two months.

Cllr McGeough’s motion said the move would ‘encourage footfall’ in town centres and boost local businesses in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

After it was voted down by the committee by six votes to five, he said he would submit a new motion calling for two hours of free parking.

Speaking during the virtual meeting, Cllr McGeough said: “The motion put before us was trying to give business owners and town centres a revival over these pandemic times and trying to improve the lives of residents.

“It comes at a cost that, to me, to get our local economy up and running again is a money well spent.

“I believe this is a time for councillors to pull together and show people we are working for their best interests at heart.”

However, TDC said the move would see it lose approximately £192,000 in income, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected its financial position.

Councillors felt the move for completely free parking would not have much benefit on visitors or traders.

Cllr Jon Hutchings said: “I would like a proposal that would look at two hours of free parking in the main towns.

“I believe that would support businesses rather than just make it a free for all which would lose a lot of income for the council. Anything longer than that wouldn’t really help businesses.”

Councillor Peter Christie said free parking had been tried once before, with car parks filled by those working in the town centre rather than shoppers.

TDC council leader, Cllr Ken James said he didn’t think a parking change would make ‘a scrap of difference’ to footfall in town centres during the coronavirus pandemic, only ‘more financial embarrassment’.

He said: “We are running at a deficit and it’s going to get worse, there’s no doubt about that.

“Torridge has been leading the way through Devon for the last couple of months in terms of finances and the decisions made have been way ahead of most people, and we don’t want to jeopardise that.

“On the other hand the strength of opinion is we need to encourage people in to towns. I think it’s a gesture, I don’t think it’s going to make a lot of difference.”

The council suspended parking charges for its car parks during the coronavirus lockdown while the majority of businesses were closed.

Town centre car parks in Bideford, Torrington and Holsworthy resumed charging on June 15 in line with the reopening of non-essential shops, while charges for coastal car parks resumed in May.

A report to councillors from TDC’s planning and economy manager Sean Kearney said there was no evidence to suggest free car parking would ‘lift trading opportunities’ in town centres.

The report said removing parking charges for two months in Bideford, Torrington and Holsworthy would cost the council £192,000, while there would still be a need for patrols in coastal car parks.

As of July 1, the council had taken £39,950 in pay and display charges since reopening its car parks after the lockdown.

The report said: “Torridge has been offering free parking on The Pill car park (Bideford) on Saturday afternoon and Sunday for some years and yet no evidence has been presented that this intervention has made a positive impact on town centre trading.”

“So, the benefits of the proposal are uncertain but what is certain is that the council would lose significant revenue by giving two months of free parking, the costs of providing the car parks and their management would not decrease and there is no obvious answer to how this budgetary impasse might be met.”

The report added: “It should also be noted that parking charges are an important revenue stream for the council and are used to cover the costs of service delivery. The costs of providing a parking service do not decrease if free parking is offered and will still need to be paid for.

“Given that there are extreme pressures on the council’s budget it seems counter intuitive to recommend any scheme that would reduce income without evidence that there would be benefits elsewhere.”