LEADING councillors have defended their “ambitious” free parking trial amid claims it will help revitalise Carlisle’s city centre.

The new administration wants to bring in the pilot scheme after 3pm in some car parks from next month in a bid to inject new life into the high street, boost the afternoon economy and stop the city haemorrhaging trade to Penrith and Gretna.

But prominent opposition councillors, including Les Tickner, have raised concerns over the possible financial impact, branding the initiative “reckless” and “ill-thought out”.

The pilot scheme was discussed at the economic growth scrutiny panel after it was called in.

Several councillors had raised concerns over how its success would be measured as well as the environmental impact.

But defending the plans, deputy leader Gareth Ellis said: “Carlisle is changing and we need to change with it. Some of that is admitting that we need to draw people into the city and keep them here for longer. This is a way of achieving that.”

He said the problem was not simply a case of people going to the outskirts of the city to do their shopping but by people travelling elsewhere.

He said: “You can go to Gretna [Gateway] on a Saturday afternoon and their car park is solid. You come here on a Saturday afternoon and sometimes it is like a ghost town.

“We do a lot to try to get people in and when we get it right, the town is heaving. It seems crazy that people would rather spend their money on petrol and drive to Gretna and do their shopping there than come to this city and do it here because of a car parking charge.”

Responding to environmental concerns, he added: “There’s nothing more environmentally friendly than using your local high street.”

The pilot scheme would be rolled out on a trial basis - following legal notices and consultation - at Caldew Riverside, Castle and Viaduct in a bid to help boost trade in the city centre.

It would run from August 1 to the end of March 2020.

The scheme would be monitored by officers with recommendations and options developed as the trial is underway.

But after hearing from the administration, councillors agreed not to refer the scheme back to the executive but to include it in the work programme instead.

Councillor Colin Glover added that he believed the scrutiny panels could be of “great assistance” in getting the pilot right.