Controversial plans to introduce car parking charges in 30 towns across Northern Ireland are expected to be scrapped by the new Minister for Regional Development.
The comments, heralded as “great news for traders”, come just weeks after the Belfast Telegraph launched its Park The Charges campaign calling for the proposals to be ditched.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, UUP MLA Danny Kennedy, who is tipped to be the next DRD Minister, indicated it would be “a priority” to end the scheme.
“We have a manifesto commitment on the issue of car parking charges in towns, therefore I would expect whoever the Ulster Unionist Party minister is to look at that issue and bring forward that manifesto pledge,” he said.
Mr Kennedy, MLA for Newry and Armagh, would not confirm whether a decision has been made on appointing him as the new DRD Minister.
He did, however, add it would be “entirely sensible” to stop the plans from being introduced.
“I would have thought it would be an early response by any new minister,” he said.
“Going through the election the UUP made a pledge on it, so it is not unreasonable to expect that pledge to be brought forward into reality.
“There was widespread concern being expressed by retailers and small businesses in towns throughout Northern Ireland.
“I think the manner of the announcement by the previous minister and potential impact with retailers under such pressure, I think there would be general relief.”
The DRD hoped to raise £37m over four years by making motorists in urban centres like Ballycastle, Ballymena, Downpatrick, Dungannon, Omagh and Newtownards pay for parking for the first time.
Outraged traders who claimed the move would kill town centres have described the comments as “great news”.
Earlier this month the Belfast Telegraph obtained a copy of a letter from outgoing Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy in which he stated categorically that “on-street car parking charges will be further extended to all major towns” in Northern Ireland.
This was despite previous assurances from DRD that no decision on the plans, which have caused anger among shopkeepers across the province, would be made before a public consultation process was carried out.
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) chief executive Glyn Roberts, who backed the Belfast Telegraph campaign, said the comments were “welcome news”.
“The fact that the UUP has indicated that they would scrap the charges has to be welcomed,” he said.
“The campaign to get these charges dropped has hit the target. Had they been introduced it would have killed town centre businesses right across Northern Ireland.”
He added: “We contacted all the main party leaders indicating the impact such a move would have on town centres across Northern Ireland. The UUP have indicated they have listened.
“We now need to seek an urgent meeting with the new DRD Minister whoever that is to get clarification on what happens next.”
Northern Ireland’s new Ministers, meanwhile, will be announced today.
Speculation is mounting over who will take the 11 portfolios within the Northern Ireland Executive.
Along with Mr Kennedy as the new DRD Minister, Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd is rumoured to become the new Education Minister, replacing Caitriona Ruane.
And Sinn Fein MLA Martina Anderson has also been tipped to take the Culture portfolio.
Sinn Fein picked the Department of Culture Art and Leisure, where they have pledged to introduce an Irish Language Act.
They may reverse many of the policies promoted by Nelson McCausland, their DUP predecessor.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson, meanwhile, is expected to remain as Finance Minister.
The Belfast Telegraph launched the Park The Charges campaign, calling for the next DRD Minister to scrap plans to introduce on-street car parking charges. At a time of serious economic difficulties, this paper believes that the Stormont Executive should be supporting retailers in small towns and recognising their vital role in the economy