COUNCILLORS will push ahead with plans to introduce free parking in Abingdon and Wantage despite warnings it is unaffordable and unnecessary.

The Conservatives promised free short-stay parking in Vale of White Horse District Council car parks by Christmas after winning control of the council in May.

But a report to the council cabinet, which meets on Friday, said cuts would have to be made to fund the two hours of free parking —expected to cost £250,000 a year.

John Backley, council technical and facilities manager, reported: “Given the increasing pressures on the Vale council’s future financial health, there is a significant risk that the Vale council will face a substantial medium-term financial deficit, which it has no means of addressing other than by service cuts.

“For these reasons, the chief finance officer strongly recommends against the introduction of free parking.”

He added: “Officers are unaware of any evidence from national studies that free parking makes a noticeable difference to footfall in town centres.”

Funding options open to the council include a £452,000 homes bonus it received from Government for building homes. The money, although not ring-fenced, is supposed to be spent on infrastructure.

Council leader Matthew Barber said the council was “committed” to the scheme and the expense was something he had planned for. The council was likely to use the homes bonus cash and make long-term savings.

Mr Barber said: “We are still convinced that there is a good case for it. The places we are competing with have free parking.”

The council lost 16 per cent of its expected £6.6m Government funding last year.

Richard Webber, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group on the council, said the free parking promise was “electoral bribery”.

He said: “It is a promise they frankly should not have made. I am really anxious about what is going to have to go to pay for it.

“They have put their heads on the block now. There are a lot of people that are expecting this to happen.

“I do not see how it is politically possible for them to backtrack on it now without getting an enormous red face and infuriating shopkeepers.”

The report also said a form of free parking already existed, with Sainsbury’s in Wantage offering shoppers two hours and Waitrose in Abingdon offering one-and-a-half.

The cost of implementing a switch to the new system would be about £10,500.

Abingdon Chamber of Commerce president Paul Townsend insisted the investment was worth it.

He said: “A lot of our members did support the Conservatives and if they go back on their word now, there will be uproar.”

Wantage Chamber of Commerce president Jim Hetherington said: “The chamber would be very disappointed if the district council was unable to fulfil its election promises.

“It is our view that free parking will encourage more visitors to the town and therefore will benefit trade.”

The cabinet meets at The Abbey House at 2pm on Friday.