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A Woodbridge high street stalwart has launched a campaign to lobby the council for free parking in the town, claiming more could be done to support small businesses post pandemic.

Jill Barrett, director of department store Barretts on The Thoroughfare, has been bombarding East Suffolk Council with requests for high street assistance since last year but, as shops prepare to reopen post lockdown, her efforts have doubled.

Now the store owner, whose family has run the business for more than 50 years, is lobbying local councillors to make changes to a car parking policy which she claims is actively putting people off visiting the town.

“Our competitors are the large out of town shopping centres which have a huge advantage over high streets in that they can offer free parking as well as benefit from rock-bottom rent and rates,” she said.

“What I am asking the council is for help to even out this imbalance by offering free parking for shoppers for a certain amount of time. This would be especially helpful for small and medium independents to get back on their feet after the Covid crisis.”

The council scrapped the car parking charges for a very brief period of time during the height of lockdown but has since reintroduced them to all car parks in the town. There is one car park which offers a free half an hour for cars parked in six bays but the rest charge 50p for 30 minutes rising to £1.20 for an hour, £1.80 for two hours and £3 for four.

Meanwhile other towns in Suffolk have continued to scrap car parking charges to support local businesses.

These include Bury St Edmunds which provides free parking in all council car parks after 3pm on Tuesdays to support late night shopping and Crown Car park in Ipswich which is offering five hours of free parking from Monday June 15 until Friday July 3 to support the reopening of stores in the town centre.

Mrs Barrett said:  “It feels like Woodbridge are getting a rotten deal in comparison. Woodbridge car parks were only free when most shops were closed. Now they are tentatively reopening and the support isn’t there for them.

“The council argue that parking fees help it maintain facilities, however there are other towns in the UK that have scrapped parking charges altogether on a permanent basis.”

These include Ely in Cambridgeshire where you can park for free for two hours in all town and city centre car parks and on the street in designated bays managed by East Cambridgeshire District Council.

Mrs Barrett said: “This is proving that it can be done without causing a detrimental impact on council revenue.

“If we had a two hour free parking provision across Woodbridge, shops would reap the benefits of more footfall on the high street and there would be a boost to the local economy which is something local government has a responsibility to promote.

“There certainly is plenty of evidence that car parking charges and lack of spaces are a disincentive for shoppers to Woodbridge and it’s disappointing to me that the council can’t see that.”

The fight for free parking in Woodbridge has attracted the backing of Choose Woodbridge, the town’s business and tourism association, which is currently running a #StayLocalChooseWoodbridge campaign to encourage more people to shop locally post lockdown.

James Lightfoot, chairman of Choose Woodbridge said: “One of the reasons some town centres are struggling is the difficulty and cost of parking.

“People can buy on the internet without leaving their sofa and they can drive to the out of town retail park and park for free outside the shop door.”

In an email to Mrs Barrett, Kerry Blair, head of operations at East Suffolk Council said: “The council has considered the ways in which it supports business during and after the recovery, and has been active in channeling funds to businesses to provide them with the support that they need to survive and to adapt.

“Members have considered whether free parking is a solution to the issues faced by the high street, and the conclusion is that it is not, in fact, the answer. There is no evidence that a modest parking charge puts people off shopping in town centres, and therefore the efforts of the council have been focused elsewhere.”

To add your opinion to the debate on scrapping parking charges in Woodbridge, complete this brief survey (which takes only 2 minutes to complete)  – https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/93CRZ3V