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Sudbury’s Market Hill set to proceed with summer pilot scheme despite uncertainty over future of town’s free parking

Trial layout changes for the centre of Sudbury are set to go ahead this summer, after motions to scrap the plans were defeated, despite concerns about the future of free parking in the town.

Sudbury Town Council agreed this week to press ahead with a pilot scheme for Market Hill – originally due to take place in 2023, before being delayed by a year to give businesses more preparation time.

Councillors previously approved a trial that would shut Market Hill to traffic between May and September, with parking bays at the north end removed, to create a more flexible space for outdoor dining and events.

Market Hill, Sudbury
Market Hill, Sudbury

This year, however, Babergh District Council has begun consulting on a proposed reduction of free parking and potential new charges across the car parks it owns.

This led to a motion at Sudbury’s full council meeting on Tuesday night, arguing that the Market Hill pilot should not go ahead amid such uncertainty around parking in the rest of the town.

The motion stated: “In their original consideration of the plan to pedestrianise Market Hill, councillors were hoping that impact on closing parking bays would be mitigated by the availability of free parking nearby. That cannot now be assured.”

However, a majority of councillors decided that, with any possible changes to parking fees in Babergh not expected until 2025 at the earliest, the Market Hill trial could proceed this year as intended.

Cllr Tim Regester said: “The chances of these two things overlapping are very unlikely.

“We need a benchmark, so actually doing this experiment and counting footfall will be extremely useful if we end up having to take short-term parking charges.”

The idea of removing parking from Sudbury’s Market Hill, in an effort to make it more pedestrian-friendly, has been a divisive issue since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Between lockdowns, most parking was suspended, with the spaces along the hill instead used by businesses for socially-distanced alfresco dining.

However, supporters and detractors of the concept have given differing views on whether this helps or hinders footfall to shops in Sudbury – a debate which was reignited at Tuesday night’s town council meeting.

Councillor Melanie Barrett proposed significantly scaling back the trial on Market Hill, suggesting that only parking bays on the north side should be temporarily removed to assess how the hospitality businesses benefit from being able to use the space on a regular basis.

She told the meeting: “A lot of businesses I have spoken to said they didn’t know Market Hill was going to close. I don’t think it has been publicised well enough, for people to make their comments known.”

But Jessie Carter stated the majority of people who had contacted her were enthusiastic about the scheme, and disappointed it did not happen last summer.

Adrian Stohr added: “We need to be clear that we’re trialing it, not implementing it.

“We’re allowing the public and businesses to see how the trial is, and if there are serious problems. As it’s a trial, we have the right to pull back on it if necessary.”

Tim Regester said the success of similar projects elsewhere in the UK showed the potential benefits, which he believed would remain even if Babergh District Council cut back free parking elsewhere in the town.

“The main point is that there’s no data to state that removing car parking spaces will reduce footfall to retail spaces,” he told the meeting.

“Whereas, there is countless evidence for entirely the opposite: that if you improve access to retail spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, they spend more.”

Peter Beer disputed this, however, and claimed there was no guarantee when Babergh might introduce new parking fees, which he described as a “double whammy” with the closure of Market Hill.

“Certainly, the motorist does not get a fair deal,” he said. “You have to be fair to the shopkeepers and the businesses, and they will suffer.

“If you take away people’s ability to park, you’re going to kill off the town – mark my words.”

Responding to the arguments on both sides, Nigel Bennett urged his fellow councillors to remember why they had agreed to carry out the pilot in the first place.

“For a lot of people, the experience of lockdown, for large chunks, was that it was tumbleweed,” he said.

“At the same time, there were many people who really liked having Market Hill cordoned off.

“The logic of what we came up with was not keeping the status quo, but also not the radical solution of closing it off all year.

“It was a hybrid scheme, where it was closed off for the summer. because that was the time – if you were going to have any café culture, if you were going to have events – to do it.

“At the end of the day, there will be a decision – should this become permanent, or should this be dropped because it didn’t work? It could be successful. I think we should try.”