An unholy row has broken out between a clergyman and the council over claims that churchgoers are being preyed on by over zealous parking wardens.
Father Marc Lyden-Smith, of St Mary’s RC Church in the city centre, has called on Sunderland City Council to rethink its rules, which he say often confuse those attending mass, especially the old and infirm.
He has also spoken out about the increase in charges for parking in the area and has questioned how the extra cash raised has helped the city’s road network.
The priest says he has complained to the council on a number of occasions, but has reached the end of his tether over the issue, which he says has left parishioners facing fines.
But council chiefs hit back, saying it was ‘ridiculous’ to suggest churchgoers were being specifically targeted.
Fr Marc said: “I understand that parking wardens have a job to do, but I can’t help but think that churchgoers are easy targets and easy money for them in Sunderland city centre.
Mass takes less than one hour and I wonder are church goers are being targeted because traffic wardens feel they are easy prey?Fr Marc Lyden-Smith
“Very often on Sundays, parishioners leave Mass to find parking tickets on cars.
“I have to constantly tell parishioners to be aware and careful about parking around St Mary’s Church, with the many complicated and varied regulations with regard to spaces.
“Bearing in mind that we have many elderly people coming to Mass who cannot walk far from cars.
“Mass takes less than one hour and I wonder are churchgoers are being targeted because traffic wardens feel they are easy prey?
“This is a symptom of a much bigger problem in our city, that of a council lacking in imagination and vision when it comes to parking in the city centre.
“Earlier this year we have had an exorbitant rise in parking charges at St Mary’s and the Civic car park.
“Why? And have these price rises been of any benefit to motorists driving into the city?
“We also have the added problem: so many different charges and rules and regulations in the different car parks and spaces in the city. Why?
“It is time the council introduced a simpler and more attractive pricing structure that would actually encourage people to come into the city.
“This is not rocket science and has been called for numerous times from many in the city. “Why do these comments and suggestions fall on deaf ears?
“Why don’t we have a council that listen and respond to the needs and concerns of the people that they are elected to serve?
“The only time we have a simple, straightforward approach to parking in Sunderland is after 3pm on Thursdays, when it is free across the board.
“In addition to being free after 3pm on Thursdays it should also be free across the board on Sundays, Bank Holidays and after 6pm.
“I would ask the council - who is responsible for making decisions about car parking in the city - if anyone actually is?
“And why can’t a simpler, fairer system be in place this winter?
“It is time they stopped discouraging people from coming into town, and respond.
“And in the meantime, please stop targeting elderly people coming to pray in our city.”
Council cabinet member for environment and transport, Councillor Amy Wilson, said: “Parking enforcement does not and has never targeted any specific groups or individuals and to suggest otherwise is unhelpful and wrong.
“It is ridiculous for Father Marc to suggest that the city council is targeting Catholics attending mass.
“All drivers have a responsibility to park legally and responsibly.
“A Penalty Charge Notice is only issued if a vehicle is deemed to be parked in contravention of the regulations.
“Surely Father Marc is not saying his parishioners should be made an exception?
“The city council is always willing to sensibly debate its parking policies.
“With specific regards to charges, the facts are that between 2010 and 2015 charges were frozen in the city.
“Also the most recent increase has been 10p per hour at some locations, not all.
“It is also worth noting a recent survey by private number plate provider National Numbers found that Sunderland is the cheapest place for motorists to park their cars in the UK with drivers paying an average of just 79p to park.”
SUNDAY PARKING SHOULD BE FREE - SAYS OAP
Among those to face paying a ticket is Terry Canavan, 80, from South Hylton, who was given a penalty for parking in a loading bay nearby as he attended the 5pm mass one Sunday.
The great-grandfather of 10, who served in the Durham Light Infantry and now uses a walking stick, paid the early £35 fine after the £60 fixed penalty notice was left on his car.
“I’ve been given a ticket once, and that was more than enough,” he said.
“When I found it I was gutted, especially because people are being encouraged to come to church.
“I think on a Sunday they should make it free parking, because no one is loading on a Sunday night.
“Some people have stopped coming because of it.”
OPPOSITION BACKING FOR FATHER MARC
Millfield Liberal Democrat Councillor Andrew Wood said there cause to look at ways of parking and paying for it simpler, with an argument something similar to Newcastle’s Alive After Five free parking after 5pm scheme could be brought in to keep business coming into Wearside.
“I can understand Fr Marc’s frustrations because it’s not a straight forward system,” he said.
“The Lib Dems, for the last two years running, have asked for a budget for better parking.
“We need to encourage people in to use the facilities, especially on a Sunday.”
Conservative Councillor Peter Wood added: “Having, myself, argued recently through the Echo’s columns for ‘a simpler and more attractive pricing structure’ for parking in the city centre I fully endorse Fr Marc’s call. “And part of that policy should be free parking on Sundays, Bank Holidays and after 6pm.
“There would be two benefits from such a policy.
“It would bring more people into our city centre - something we desperately need - and make our car parks more profitable, raising more money to improve such car parks as the civic centre’s which people, currently, must find very off-putting.
“I will continue my own campaign on city centre parking at Wednesday’s council meeting by asking a question aimed at encouraging the council to arrange for an independent, comprehensive assessment of parking use and policy and its implication for the future viability of the city centre.”