Out-of-town shoppers coming into Belfast have been shocked at the price of car parking in some parts of the city.
The complaints come as retailers try to entice people into town in the run up to Christmas following a difficult trading year amid the flag protests.
One furious visitor contacted the Belfast Telegraph after he was charged a staggering £6 for a 42-minute stay in one of the city centre's flagship facilities.
The businessman, who asked not to be named, said it was "beyond scrooge-like" to expect festive motorists to pay so much.
"This is the big Christmas rip-off," he said.
"I know there are probably cheaper car parks elsewhere in Belfast, but I needed to be in the centre of town and I parked at Montgomery Street car park without comparing prices elsewhere.
"I honestly couldn't believe it when I was charged £6 for under three quarters of an hour. It's exorbitant. Who can afford that kind of money these days?
"If people are thinking of going to Belfast to do their Christmas shopping they need to at least know that car parking could set them back a considerable amount."
Shops, restaurants and bars in Northern Ireland's capital have suffered from sustained disruption to trade in the last 12 months as a result of protests – sometimes violent – over a decision not to fly the Union flag over City Hall 365 days a year.
They have said they are hoping for a bumper shopping period during the countdown to Christmas to recoup some of the cash they lost. The last thing retailers need to hear is consumer complaints over parking charges.
Kevin O'Connor, business manager at NCP, the company that runs Montgomery Street car park, said he was taking customer complaints very seriously.
And he promised to review tariffs at the multi-storey facility, located between Chichester Street and May Street – in January.
"The pricing structure has been in place for over a year and £6 would have given the customer up to two hours," said Mr O'Connor.
"Montgomery Street is really a business car park. However, we do actually offer an all-day tariff of £5 on Saturdays and Sundays."
But he added: "I'll be looking at the current tariff structure in January to see how we can best support the local community with the services they need."
A straw poll of different fees charged by various car parks in the centre of Belfast conducted by this newspaper found huge price variations.
At Montgomery Street it costs £2.10 for 30 minutes, £6 for two hours, £11.30 for two to four hours, £14.30 for four to six hours and £19.60 for between six and 24 hours.
Motorists who opt for parking at the nearby Victoria Square Q-Park will pay £3 per hour from 8am until 7pm, after which the fee rises to £4.50 an hour.
Hi-Park on High Street, another privately-run car park in the city centre, charges £2 per hour between 7am and 6pm, increasing to £3 from 6pm until 11pm, although it offers a 9am-6pm Sunday option for £5.
Meanwhile, at Cromac Street car park, which the Department of Regional Development (DRD) operates, the rates are considerably less. Up to one hour will cost just 60p, for example, with less than two hours costing £1.30 and less than three working out at £1.80.
Private car park charges also compare rather unfavourably with tariffs for on-street car parking in Belfast, also run by the DRD.
For example, from Monday to Saturday, you can park a car for 45 minutes between 8am and 6pm for just 90p, whereas an hour costs £1.20.
Indeed, the fee for up to four hours on many city centre streets in Belfast is £4.80 – £7.20 less than Victoria Square and £9.50 cheaper than Montgomery Street.
With a £25-a-day maximum charge, Q-Park at Victoria Square appeared to be the most expensive long-term option, followed by St Anne's Square at £24 for 24 hours (also Q-Park), Queen's Quay at the Odyssey centre which costs £22 per day and Montgomery Street at £19.60.
Tariffs driving people away, says ex-mayor
A former Lord Mayor of Belfast has praised a private car park for pledging to review its tariffs – and has called on others to follow suit.
Jim Rogers was speaking after the Belfast Telegraph exposed the punitive rates motorists are paying in some city centre facilities.
Indeed, one reader revealed that he had been billed £6 for parking for just 42 minutes in Montgomery Street car park, which is run by NCP.
"I'm pleased NCP has agreed to review its charges in January because people are being ripped off," said the Ulster Unionist politician.
"The high cost of parking is going to drive people out of Belfast.
"It's outrageous that someone had to pay £6 for using a car park when he could have parked on the street for the same length of time for 60p.
"It's unbelievable. I'm sure that gentleman will not come back to Belfast to shop in a hurry and that's what disturbs and distresses me."
Mr Rogers added: "All private car parks must carry out price reviews.
"They owe it to the capital city at a time when many retailers are finding it hard to make ends meet."
Transport Minister Danny Kennedy recently announced a festive package of public transport measures to help shoppers and traders in the run up to Christmas.
The measures included an expansion of Park and Ride services, free of charge Park and Rides, fare promotions and an embargo on road works over the Christmas period.
'They need to cut prices now or it will be too late'
Private car parks have been told to slash the exorbitant prices customers are being charged as a matter of urgency.
The call comes amid fears that sky-high tariffs are driving people away from shopping in Belfast city centre in the run-up to Christmas.
The call follows an investigation by this newspaper which found that motorists were paying almost eight times as much in privately run facilities compared to sites run by the Department of Regional Development (DRD).
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Association (NIIRTA) boss Glyn Roberts said it was time to cut the cost of car parking now – before it's too late.
"There has been a problem with the prices being charged by privately owned car parks in Belfast for some time now," Mr Roberts said.
"We haven't seen them make any attempt or play any role in attracting people into the city centre and that needs to change.
"The DRD and Translink have both stepped up to the mark by offering special deals, and yet the private car parks have done nothing.
"They need to step up to the plate and they need to offer discounted parking in Belfast city centre in the final few weeks of Christmas and the first few weeks of January.
"That's my challenge to them."
Mr Roberts was speaking after the success of Small Business Saturday, an initiative aimed at encouraging shoppers to support local traders.
"People came out in their droves and it was great to see, particularly as we've had a very difficult year in terms of trading," said Mr Roberts.
"But there's absolutely no point in persuading people to come into Belfast if they're going to be charged a fortune to park."
At the four main privately owned city centre car parks – Montgomery Street, Victoria Square, Hi-Park and CastleCourt – motorists are expected to pay rates from £2.10 for 30 minutes up to £25-a-day maximum charge.
However, many consumers don't realise that substantial savings can be made by opting for a site run by the DRD instead.
The DRD has a total of 33 car parks in and around Belfast, 13 of which offer patrons free parking.
For further information on DRD car parks visit: https://applications.drdni.gov.uk/Carparking/TownCarparks.aspx