Controversial plans for the future of parking in Chester have been rubber stamped – spelling the end for the Free After 3 scheme.

Cabinet members at Cheshire West and Chester Council approved a 15-year plan of investment and improvement in the borough’s parking provision yesterday (Weds, July 12).

A report, drawn up following a 12-week public consultation, had found Free After 3 was having only limited benefit and should be replaced with alternative discount offers which would encourage visitors throughout the day rather than only after 3pm.

The plan also recommends on-street parking bays in Chester and modest parking charges in Hoole, Frodsham, Northwich and Winsford, while Free After 3 will be axed in eight Ellesmere Port car parks.

Carl Critchlow, manager of business group CH1ChesterBID, has led opposition to the council’s parking strategy – saying the proposals would be a hammer blow to Chester.

Councillors queued up to air their concerns at yesterday’s cabinet meeting. Upton councillor Matt Bryan (Lab) spoke of an air pollution crisis in Chester due to so many cars coming into the city and said more should be done to encourage use of the Park and Ride services.

Fellow Upton ward Cllr Jill Houlbrook (Con) called the parking strategy poorly thought out and not cohesive. She added that Chester would wither under a Labour administration if Free After 3 was scrapped.

Chester villages Cllr Stuart Parker (Con) said axing Free After 3 would be bad news for Chester’s indoor market where traders are already struggling to cope following the opening of the new bus interchange and the loss of the Princess Street station.

He said: “This strategy will affect the future prosperity of the borough. I can appreciate your desire to save money and raise extra revenue, but this is not the way to do it.”

The Labour-led council has responded by saying this is the best way to generate income needed to improve parking provision, while also contributing towards the savings the cash-strapped authority must make.

Cllr Karen Shore, cabinet member for environment at CWaC, said: “Nobody likes paying for things that were previously free, but the fairest way to generate the income needed to make this level of investment, and contribute towards the savings the council must make, is for everyone to contribute rather than the postcode lottery system currently in place.

“There is an imbalance at the moment, as residents and businesses in some areas are paying for parking and others are not. In many areas where charges are not in place there are significant parking pressures and that is not fair.”

The parking charge changes were approved two hours into yesterday’s meeting at CWaC’s Chester HQ.

A council spokesman confirmed there is no precise timescale on exactly when Free After 3 will be phased out. The scheme was introduced in 2008 following a campaign by retailers to address declining city centre footfall. It is currently available in the Brook Street, Delamere Street and Market car parks, allowing people to park there free from 3pm onwards.

Cllr Shore said parking charges would come in ‘at the right time and in the right way’.