CHESTER’S nationally acclaimed Free After Three parking scheme could face the axe.

Councillors are locked in a war of words following a Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) executive meeting where axeing the popular scheme was controversially mooted.

Fears for the scheme’s future were raised after councillors considered a report by international specialists AECOM Transportation following a comprehensive review of parking facilities across Chester.

AECOM had been asked to prepare a parking strategy to be rolled out over 15 years.

Other recommendations include proposals to increase car parking charges by as much as nine per cent and park and ride charges by as much as 30 per cent.

The flagship Free After Three policy, which applies to the car parks at Gorse Stacks, the Market and Brook Street, has been largely credited with attracting extra shoppers into the city during the recession. But the report states Chester’s park and ride charges (£1.70) are considerably cheaper than fellow historic cities York (£2.30) and Bath (£3).

Speaking after the executive meeting CWaC spokesman Ian Callister said Free After Three had been ‘saved’ and councillors from the ruling Conservative group had rejected that part of the AECOM report.

But Cllr David Robinson, Labour opposition spokesman for transport, said the council leadership had been ‘all over the place’ at the meeting and had ‘agreed to consider’ plans to get rid of the scheme.

“They were presented with a report which they were told had to be accepted in full because otherwise the strategy wouldn’t work,” he said.

“They were told by their own Tory portfolio holder there could not be a ‘pick and mix’ approach. Yet that is precisely what they attempted to do.

“Their own specially commissioned strategy specified an alternative scheme to Free After Three with a pricing structure but they backed away from it and fudged the recommendation. They insisted on an evaluation of a replacement scheme for Free after Three while claiming it will be retained.”

He added: “The writing’s on the wall. It’s obvious they are going to scrap Free after Three.

“This is not proper leadership on a serious issue which impacts on the daily lives of residents.”

In a report Steve Kent, CWaC director of community and environment, told councillors he had accepted in principle the strategy’s recommendation to replace Free After Three with an ‘alternative discounted offer’ which benefited residents.

He added: “Retailers and residents are supportive of the existing regime and it is therefore considered further work is required to evaluate and develop a potential discounted scheme compatible with other elements of the strategy.”

CWaC executive member for community and environment, Cllr Lynn Riley, said: “For the first time we will have a strategic framework to guide the investment and development of parking to help deliver on the vision of making Chester a truly exciting city.”

AECOM managers said in a statement: “In general the challenge will be to create a pricing strategy that encourages long stay linked and multi-purpose trips to central car parks, minimising short term trips into the city centre without unfairly penalising residents on essential business.”

According to Stephen Wundke, Chester city management co-ordinator: “I think in the last four years, for both businesses and residents, Free After Three has been the most popular thing we have achieved.”

He added Free After Three was one of three nominated for an Association of Town and City Managers ‘Outstanding Marketing Contribution’ and he was regularly contacted by leaders of other towns and cities interested in copying the scheme.