FREE parking in town centres across Carmarthenshire seems set to come to an end as we know it.

Carmarthenshire County Council has been receiving £217,000 from the Welsh Government as part of a free parking scheme which the council has been using to fund free parking between set times on set days in the main towns in the county.

Currently, the free parking in Ammanford, Llandovery, Llandeilo, Newcastle Emlyn and St Clears is between 10am and 2pm, Monday to Wednesday. In Carmarthen it is 3.30pm to 6pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays. In Llanelli it is 10am to 4pm, Monday and Tuesday.

Alongside this, there is also free parking on five days a year when there are events going on in the town centres.

The Welsh Government’s funding ended in 2022, and a report made by the council’s cabinet recommended the removal of the set days for free parking. Cllr Edward Thomas read the report to a scrutiny committee on Friday, July 21.

He highlighted the changes in shopping habits since the pandemic, with an increase in online sales and a decrease in in-person shopping in town centres and stated that ‘free parking status does not seem to be having a material impact on consumer behaviour.’

He also highlighted that rural areas have seen an increase in in-person shopping, however, principal towns haven’t seen that increase, and the fact that car parking charges – which would be around £44 per year – are low down on motorists’ priorities, with RAC research stating that the cost of fuel and the state of the roads are the most important and concerning issues for drivers.

The report stated that in Ammanford, there had been a reduction in income from parking of 34 per cent, with 26 per cent in Carmarthen and 37 per cent in Llanelli.

Cllr Thomas said: “From a revenue account perspective, the reduction in income from car parking is causing an overall budget pressure. The pressure has been partially mitigated by a reduction in maintenance spend and an increase in income from mobile on-street parking offences.

“However, both mitigation measures are not sustainable and whilst parking fees will go up by five per cent as part of last year’s budget process, the net impact on the budget does not bridge the budget shortfall to any extent.”

He stated that if parking demand followed the same patterns of demand as the current financial year, there would be a budget shortfall in income of around £730,000. “It would lead to a vicious circle of where the condition of the parking stock, similar to highways, will continue to deteriorate, which in turn would not promote a positive experience to visitors.”

There were five options presented to the committee that the council were planning:

  • Retain the five free parking days for events in line with the current policy but stop the current free parking hours on set days.
  • Retain the five free parking days for events in line with current policy, but stop the current free parking hours and days. Instead they would introduce one-hour free parking and support with a budget.
  • Retain the five free parking days for events in line with current policy and stop the current free parking hours and days and allow the bid teams from key towns to provide a free car parking offer subject to BID funding in full.
  • Retain the five free car parking days for events in line with the current policy, stop the current free car parking hours and days and provide a set budget allocations for towns to determine their own free parking periods relative to the budget provided and the authority’s calculated cost of revenue.
  • Reinstate standard charging to part address the current budget pressures and remove all free parking offers.

The cabinet has discussed the options and favour the option of retaining the five free parking days for events and introducing one-hour free parking instead of the current free parking set hours on set days.

This was met with concern from members of the scrutiny committee. Neil Lewis said that the free hour of parking was the worst option as it ‘goes against the way the council is working towards the single track’ as it will encourage people to use their cars without a second thought, when people should be discouraged from using their cars ‘willy nilly’ and encouraged to plan their journeys more carefully and sustainably. His favoured option was option four or five, but stated that option five is ‘highly sensitive’. “When you look at the revenue loss the council is facing, to be splashing money in this particular direction probably shouldn’t be a priority,” he said.

Cllr Tina Higgins expressed the opposite view, sharing concerns about option five, particularly with the cost-of-living crisis and so some free parking should be kept. “We say it’s [the £44 annual parking cost] a small figure, but it’s not to people who are already struggling under this cost-of-living crisis.”

She also highlighted the effect it could have on businesses and their revenue if there is no offer of free parking, stating that public transport would have to be improved before people can move away from using their cars.

Cllr Higgins questioned option four with how the funding would be allocated and overseen to ensure it was being spent correctly. Stephen Pilliner said that it would be a similar process to the funding in 2018, based on car parking ticket sales and other factors outlined in the report.

Cllr Deryk Cundy wants to keep the parking the way it is now, highlighting more people are now going into town and that the council needs to support the economy as much as possible.

Cllr Russell Sparks offered a different view in that parking is not the key and that what is on offer is key to people going into town. He also said that the council should be congratulated for recognising the cost-of-living crisis and choosing options that are sensitive to the people of Carmarthenshire.

Cllr Sue Allen said that they needed a streamlined system for parking meters and readily available information on what is needed, such as whether it is card or cash.

Arwel Davies, preferred option four and stated “any car park review needs to strike a balance between influencing travel behaviour and encouraging people into the town centre.”

Cllr Kevin Madge, who chaired the committee, questioned the five days of free parking for events, stating that the council is losing a lot of income by doing that as ‘people are going to come in anyway’ for a big event.

He stated that car parking has been an issue throughout the last 15 or so years and that with the cost-of-living crisis, something needs to be done to help those in the area. “I believe you cannot wipe out all free car parking at this present time because of the cost-of-living crisis.

“Maybe in five years’ time when things pick up, I hope, we all hope that things will not be so bleak in the future, bit I’m going towards maybe some sort of support for people who are coming in for that loaf of bread or to get a card or go to appointments.

“There’s a lot of people like that and a lot of them are on a very, very low income.”

Gareth Thomas said that the £44 charge for parking is ‘not unreasonable’ with it being less than £1 a week and that the council has to look at what can bring money into the council itself.

The cabinet will now discuss where to proceed.