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Sudbury, Hadleigh and Lavenham car parks could be run on a ‘community interest basis’ to potentially save free parking, it has been suggested

Car parks in Sudbury could be run by a community interest company with the “town’s interest at heart”.

That is the suggestion of district councillor Lee Parker, who questioned whether the town could take back direct control of car parks at a recent council meeting.

In December, Babergh District Council announced plans to charge for using its car parks in Sudbury, Hadleigh and Lavenham, where it is currently free for three hours.

Robin Bailey and Lee Parker believe a CIC could be a feasible solution. Picture: Mark Westley
Robin Bailey and Lee Parker believe a CIC could be a feasible solution. Picture: Mark Westley

The council is considering the option to balance its books, while facing a £6.7 million budget gap over the next four years.

But the move, which is now undergoing a consultation, prompted 8,758 people to sign a petition against the plan, with residents and businesses concerned it will kill trade.

Cllr Parker wants to hold talks to investigate setting up a community interest company (CIC) to run the car parks in the Sudbury, with the possibility of similar models being set up for Hadleigh and Lavenham.

Led by a board of directors, including business leaders, town and district councillors, he said it would enable the town to take back control, while also cutting costs.

“A CIC would be a means of promoting a potentially collaborative solution to what has become a binary debate; whether to implement parking charges or not,” he said.

“There is precedent for local authorities to work with CIC’s for running car parks and significantly bring down the cost of doing so, for the benefit of the community.

“What people need to understand is that an eye-watering amount of the cost associated with car parks comes from central government charging councils to run them, which is about £300,000 a year.”

“The formation of a not-for-profit CIC may benefit from more favourable taxation criteria, meaning that the government charge would either not be applied or substantially reduced.

“Much of the frustration felt by those opposed to parking charges stems from a lack of transparency around the costs and management of our car parks.

“If we take car parks out of the direct control of Babergh, they could be managed transparently in the interests solely of the towns. It would create a collaborative approach and be more in keeping with the interests of shoppers and businesses.”

The call for talks has been backed Sudbury Chamber of Commerce chairman Robin Bailey.

The chamber first drew up a framework for a CIC to run car parks in the town in 2011.

Mr Bailey said: “When we considered it at the time, it looked feasible and there were many discussions involving the town and district councils. It is just a question of getting like-minded people together. It’s something the chamber would support and assist with.”

Chris Storey, who runs SB Surveyors in Sudbury, was one of the original architects of the chamber’s CIC scheme.

The plan included the CIC taking out a long lease from the district council for the car parks, and a transition period whereby it would not pay rent initially, as there is no charge for the parking at the moment.

However, within a set period, the operation would become self-financing, with a business plan which would minimise running costs.

He said: “To a certain extent, car parks are a historic asset and they are very town specific.

“It would be far better if those town centre resources were managed at a very local level for the benefit of the community.

“The problem is the way the charges are structured in that there is a lot of officer time that is currently charged against car parks and that also needs to be extracted out.

“There are significant potential benefits to the town in having some direct accountability and control over the car parking and looking after it for the benefit of the town itself, and wider the population.”

But Mr Storey warned: “I have had annual discussions over a prolonged period of time over car parking issues dating back to about 2007 and it is extremely difficult to get a long-term solution unless people are prepared to discuss things on a long-term basis.

“There are a lot of details that would need to be sorted out but it is not impossible. There would need to be a willingness on the part of the district council to engage with the idea, but we are not starting from a blank sheet.

“Charging arrangements might still might be necessary, but the difference is that it would be ring-fenced and clear where the money was going to.

“However, free three hour parking is one of the key selling points for Sudbury and to take this away this is a remarkably daft idea in the current climate where businesses are finding it quite tough at times.”

A spokesperson for Babergh District Council said: “We have said throughout this process that we are open to considering all suggestions. They must, however, be legally and financially viable.

“The next steps regarding proposals for the introduction of short-term parking tariffs is to take options to our overview and scrutiny committee on March 18, ahead of further discussion by the cabinet.”

A spokesman for the town council said a CIC proposal would need to be submitted before it could be discussed.