Council to consider free Sunday parking

8th May 2012 article in the Surrey Advertiser, Council to consider free Sunday parking.

SUBSIDISED parking for churchgoers in the centre of Woking could continue after a range of possible changes were suggested, none of which proposed the retraction of the concession.

Woking Borough Council came in for criticism last year when it emerged the authority had covered the cost of parking for people attending three Woking churches on Sunday mornings for several years, saving them more than £55,000 in total over two-and-a-half-years.

Figures provided under a Freedom of Information Act request showed £55,864 was saved by worshippers between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2011, in an issue first publicised by the Surrey Advertiser back in August 2011.

Members of the congregations from the Coign Church in Goldsworth Road, Christ Church in Town Square and Trinity Methodist Church in Brewery Road are able to take advantage of the parking subsidy if they are parking in Victoria Way and Brewery Road car parks.

Visitors insert tickets in a ‘validating device’ held at the place of worship, which encodes the ticket that can then be inserted into the exit barrier allowing them to leave without paying for a ticket.

The threat of legal action was raised when the National Secular Society (NSS) notified the local authority that arrangements benefiting people who attend religious services, which are denied to other members of the public, could constitute an offence under the Equality Act 2010.

Following the advice of lawyers that the situation could be viewed as ‘indirect discrimination’, the council commissioned an equality impact assessment to judge the status of the practice and to determine whether it should be allowed to continue in the future.

Initially due in March, the detailed 24-page study, compiled by Skyers-Poorman Research and Consulting, is now due to be discussed by the borough council at the first executive meeting of the 2012/13 political year, and sets out the background to the implementation of the free parking, the impact it has had and the possible future.

The report makes use of key documentary evidence, including the Surrey Advertiser article and influential urban planning text The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and notes the concession was a “reactive” one following the representations of church leaders.

It concludes that the initiative, while well-meaning, did not consider the needs of the “wider community”, including those carrying out “secular activities”.

Different options for a resolution include addressing the issue of on-street parking bays for the benefit of disabled people; continuing with free parking for churchgoers if it can be justified; removing car parking charges for everyone on Sunday mornings; or rescind Sunday parking charges completely.

The matter is currently due to be discussed by Woking Borough Council’s executive on Thursday, May 31.