Concerns have been raised that removing free parking in Stevenage High Street - a move being considered - could be the final nail in the coffin for small businesses already struggling to survive due to the pandemic.

Stevenage Borough Council has successfully bid to become one of Hertfordshire's first Sustainable Travel Towns - a scheme aimed at shifting away from cars, towards walking, cycling and public transport. Part of the criteria - set by Hertfordshire County Council - is to ensure no free parking in town centres, which under the scheme includes Stevenage Old Town High Street.

The borough council says it has not committed to removing free High Street parking, but the county council insists "it will be important assurances can be provided that there is clear progress towards fully meeting all the criteria as the programme develops".

High Street business owners and other interested parties are concerned the loss of free parking will deter customers and could lead to businesses failing.

John Spiers, a member of Stevenage Old Town Business and Community Partnership, said: "The council could do a lot of damage if it takes away free parking. The High Street could end up dying - there's a genuine danger of that."

Paul Sear, also a member of SOTBCP, added: "Our High Street businesses rely on the free shop-front parking to survive" and there is now "a huge risk to small independent businesses".

Pedestrianisation, seating and the reallocation of road space away from private cars could be part of a STT package, the county council suggests.

Parking bays in Stevenage High Street have already been given over to seating areas - including a permanent fixture outside Costa Coffee and temporary ones outside Misya, Angelique, Cinnabar and Wetherspoon. Parking was also lost to three bike stands in 2020, but Stevenage mayor and Old Town councillor Jim Brown says "there is no plan for full pedestrianisation".

He said the outdoor seating areas had initially been in response to the pandemic, but "perhaps some of the temporary things can be made permanent" after "the experiment" ends on September 30, if collected data supports the changes.

He added: "Parking availability hasn't been a problem. People are becoming aware the [former Waitrose] car park is there, so pressure on the High Street is less."

Nicola Hankin, from The Dressing Room Hair and Make-Up, said: "I love the outside seating areas - the atmosphere has been fantastic this week, but what will happen for the 10 months a year it is cold and raining? The [former Waitrose] car park is free for three hours until September, but what about after?"

Andre Etienne, of Andre Etienne Carpet and Floorcovering, said: "The gradual reduction in free parking on the High Street is having a negative impact on the Old Town. Customers' convenience of being able to park close to shops is being eroded."

The Comet: A permanent seating area has replaced parking bays outside Costa Coffee in Stevenage Old TownA permanent seating area has replaced parking bays outside Costa Coffee in Stevenage Old Town (Image: Louise McEvoy)

Business owners say there has been no consultation, but the borough council says plans to apply to the STT scheme were consulted on as part of the wider Future Town, Future Transport strategy two years ago.

Cllr Brown says there will be further consultation on potential High Street changes in October but, with Misya having already submitted a planning application to make its outside seating a more permanent fixture and other restaurants expected to soon follow suit, owner of cardies Jo Sorrell said: "The public consultation will be too late unless the council delays these important decisions.

"Our High Street should be easy access for all."

Objecting to the Misya planning application, Marie-Claire Clinton from On the Green said: "There is real concern and disquiet that this is metered parking or pedestrianisation by stealth. It has been well evidenced in other towns which introduced such measures that it was the death knell to their high street."

The Comet: Stevenage mayor and Old Town councillor Jim Brown says temporary measures could become permanent in the futureStevenage mayor and Old Town councillor Jim Brown says temporary measures could become permanent in the future (Image: Louise McEvoy)

Addressing SOTBCP, borough council leader Sharon Taylor said: "Now Stevenage has made a successful bid for Sustainable Travel Towns status, while it will bring substantial funding to improve sustainable transport initiatives, we will come under pressure from the county council to reduce free parking in the High Street and elsewhere. For the moment, I have argued we need free High Street parking to support the economic recovery of the Old Town."

A borough council spokesman added: "HCC would like us to see whether removing free [High Street] parking is a possible option and, if so, to provide a roadmap to do so, potentially over years. We have not committed to removing free parking, and any decision will strike a balance between the promotion of sustainable transport and the effect this could have on businesses.

"The post-COVID recovery of local businesses is vital and any proposals for parking on the High Street must take into account the impact on businesses in the short and long-term."