Belfast public told to get on bike but civil servants have 233 free car parking spaces
Hundreds of civil servants working for the Stormont department in charge of reducing traffic congestion in Belfast enjoy free parking spots in the city centre, it has emerged.
The BBC Stephen Nolan radio show revealed that the Department of Regional Development - now part of the Department of Infrastructure - has 233 free city centre car parking spaces for its own workers.
Belfast was named and shamed as the most congested city in the UK last year and the 14th worst in the world by TomTom Traffic.
The department has argued the spaces are needed for certain workers to carry out their duties.
The Department for Infrastructure has taken on the functions of the former Department for Regional Development (DRD). Among the projects it is responsible for are the Belfast bike scheme and the promotion of public transport.
But Belfast driver Cornelia Costello said the transport system was "a joke", adding that her family would soon need to own three cars.
"I work with an agency and live in Belfast," she said.
"On a Sunday shift recently I started work at 8am in Hollywood yet public transport did not start until 9.30am, forcing me to pay a private taxi or lose work. I have another daughter who works late shifts and due to no night buses she has to pay a private taxi. Time for these people to sort this transport mess."
Glyn Roberts from the NI Independent Retail Association said he could understand why many local businesses would feel they were being treated unfairly.
"I can understand the view that many business owners would take," he said.
"There needs to be a level playing field in Belfast city centre. Parking needs to be accessible for shoppers and it needs to be affordable as well. Some small business owners would say there's an issue of fairness there."
He added that the new Department of Infrastructure should review its policy, saying "they need to play their role in addressing the congestion issue as well".
Martin Reid, director of the Road Haulage Association for Northern Ireland, said: "In a city centre location where car parking is at a premium we would urge all public sector organisations to ensure any reserved spaces are being filled because public sector and consumers could be using them."
In a statement yesterday, a spokesperson for the Department for Infrastructure defended the parking spaces saying workers needed to demonstrate a "clear demonstrable and ongoing need to use a private vehicle for business purposes and where the use of public transport is impracticable". They added: "Parking facilities are not granted on a permanent basis to individuals. The head of each business area assesses business needs and allocates parking to post holders who meet the criteria. Parking spaces are often allocated on a shared basis between staff to meet varying business needs."
Carmel Gates from the Nipsa union also argued that workers needed their cars to quickly access the thousands of miles of road the department was responsible for.
"They need their car to do their job," she said.