FREE parking in some of Oxfordshire’s car parks has led to a mammoth 71 per cent rise in their use in the first year of the scheme.

Since the Vale of White Horse District Council brought in two hours’ free parking, the number of people using car parks in Abingdon, Faringdon and Wantage has leapt from around 45,000-a- month in 2011 to 77,000-a-month last year.

In the eight years prior to the scheme, annual usage numbers had dropped from 978,000 in 2003/04 to 554,000 in 2011.

The council estimated the cost of providing free parking was £250,000-a-year, but increased charges for stays longer than two hours by 30p help pay for the scheme.

Oxford traders have now called for similar measures in the city to attract more trade.

Butcher Michael Feller, based in the Covered Market, said: “There is no reason why we shouldn’t have free parking. I’m sure it would make a difference.”

Robert Pouget, owner of the Oxford Cheese Company, suggested two or three hours’ free parking would have a significant impact, but said total de-restriction would allow drivers to park all day.

He said: “People should be able to come into Oxford, park and go and buy something, go to the dentists, without having to pay an exorbitant price.

“A lot of people aren’t shopping in Oxford any more, they are shopping where prices are lower or free.”

Chris Farran, chairman of the Covered Market Association and owner of the Cake Shop, said current parking charges drove people away, forcing traders to rely on tourists.

Two hours parking in the Westgate Shopping Centre costs £4.10, and £6.10 for three hours. That compares with just £1.50 for three hours parking in Abingdon.

Colin Cook, Oxford City Council board member for city development, reiterated the council discourages cars being brought into the city.

However, he added: “We provide excellent alternatives with park-and-ride, but at the same time we realise some people do need to use cars so we do provide some city centre parking. We try TO set a balance.”

He said 40 per cent of Oxford’s 9.2m annual city centre visitors used public transport.

He said there were no current plans to introduce a similar parking scheme.

Traders in the Vale welcomed the free parking scheme. Council leader Matthew Barber described it as a “tangible improvement”.

Michael Dale, of Umami Delicatessen, Wantage, said: “We noticed straight away people were taking advantage of the free parking.

“For us it has been a great success.”