THE leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council has defended her Labour administration’s new parking strategy.

Cllr Samantha Dixon also urged people and groups to be united, rather than divided, to help the city continue to thrive.

Both the Chester Conservative Group and business group CH1ChesterBID have been critical of the parking document – particularly plans to scrap the ‘Free After 3’ scheme.

Carl Critchlow, manager of CH1ChesterBID, claimed the majority of the group’s 500 members had not been consulted on proposed changes.

But Cllr Dixon issued a statement yesterday blaming the Tory Government for continuing to slash council budgets.

And she also stressed the Parking Strategy document was the product of an extensive consultation that included CH1ChesterBID.

She said: “The Government continues to cut the budgets of local councils more than any other part of the public sector. This austerity impacts on every single decision we make. Between 2010 and 2020, we will have lost £335 million in cash terms.

“Just imagine how different the decisions we make would look if we still had access to those funds.”

Cllr Dixon said the Labour administration had inherited a plan to review the parking strategy across the borough from the outgoing Conservative team.

“Whatever they may say now, the Conservatives recognised this was important and necessary,” she said. “This is the case for almost every other council in the country, whichever political party is in control of it.”

She said the council undertook an “extremely comprehensive” consultation on the parking proposals with businesses and residents and was “open and honest” about the proposals.

Cllr Dixon said a presentation was given to CH1ChesterBID and Mr Critchlow responded in detail to the consultation in February. Copies of both documents are said to be on the group's website.

The cabinet member responsible, Cllr Karen Shore, met with Mr Critchlow in person as part of the consultation process.

“In Chester, less than half of the available car parking is operated by the council and our car parks are considerably cheaper than those operated by private operators,” Cllr Dixon said, adding it was unclear if Mr Critchlow had made similar representations to the operators or owners of private car parks.

She added: “The council wants to work with the CH1 BID to develop offers, including looking at a ‘spend and save’ system, where an element of parking charges can be refunded when people spend money with our businesses. Trialling such an initiative was part of their offer to business when the BID was established.”

Cllr Dixon said the city is forecast to receive more than three million extra visitors than in 2015.

“This has not happened by accident,” Cllr Dixon said.

She added: “Only last Saturday evening, along with council officers and other partners such as the police, university and the street pastors, I was pleased to join together with the CH1 BID to support the city’s assessment for Purple Flag Status – an accreditation given to town centres that demonstrate and maintain an enjoyable and safe night-time economy.

“This is because, even in times of austerity, I believe strongly that we achieve more by working effectively together.”

Cllr Dixon’s response followed a statement from Chester Conservatives which said the loss of Free After 3 could be the "final nail in the coffin" for some of the city’s smaller businesses.

Neil Sullivan, Tory councillor for the Handbridge Park ward, said: "Free After 3 parking is vital to Chester’s economy.

“As part of our campaign to save Chester’s free parking, we have been speaking to people across the borough who know it’s the ability to pop into town and park for free which makes people come and spend in Chester’s shops.

“If this goes, people tell us they will just travel to Broughton and Cheshire Oaks where they can park easily and for free.”

Pamela Hall, Conservative councillor for the Great Boughton ward, added: “This policy is short sighted and will have huge implications for people across the city. People’s livelihoods are at risk, and this is yet another nail in the coffin for many of our smaller and independent businesses.

“It’s all very well saying they are replacing it with ‘retail discounts’ but what does that actually mean?"