Churches from central London have warned a cash-strapped council that its community risks losing valuable volunteer-led social services if the council introduces Sunday parking charges.

Church attendances could be “shattered,” say representatives of Churches Together in Westminster – and this would lead to an inevitable reduction in their social-action programs.

Parking in the borough is currently free and unrestricted on Sundays.

The Westminster City Council believes this is a major factor in high levels of congestion. It plans to both introduce Sunday charging at meters and parking restrictions in certain parts of the borough.

Church representatives have met with council leaders to express their concerns. They include John Beynon, secretary of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

“It will have a substantial impact on congregations,” Beynon said, “but this is not a special interest plea. People can always go to other churches. It’s about the impact on the viability of church activities.”

Although Bloomsbury Central Baptist lies just outside the borough boundary in Camden, Beynon said it is close enough to be affected by the proposals.

The church runs a feeding program for the homeless on Sunday afternoons, with some volunteers spending six hours at the church. Many central London churches also have “significant social outreach programs,” he said.

“That support is dependent on churches having significant congregations. As a result of these proposals, I fear congregations will be shattered,” Beynon said.

“There will be a substantial reduction in people, and as a result many churches will become non-viable,” he said. “The cost to the social services in due course will be greater than the parking revenues.”

The churches have launched a petition asking the council not to introduce the parking charges.

The petition states that many elderly people “simply have no other means to travel than by car,” and that public transport is at its most unreliable on Sundays.

It also states that the need for Sunday parking is related to the increase in Sunday trading, introduced in 1994.

The council cabinet will vote on the proposals on Aug. 1. If implemented, there are fears they could extend to the whole borough and then onto other boroughs.

Lee Rowley, the cabinet member for parking who has met the church representatives, said there is an increase in traffic in the evenings and weekends.

The proposals address this “growing problem,” he said, and are ultimately about “making it easier for residents, businesses and visitors to use our roads effectively and ensure we have parking policies fit for the next decade.”

Westminster City Council has experienced a $41 million drop in funding from central government, and its reserves plummeted from approximately $118 million in June 2009 to nearly $18.7 million in November 2010.

It is in the process of trying to save more than $98 million over the next two years. Rules ban local authorities from using parking controls to raise cash for anything other than traffic management.

However, briefing documents unearthed by the website suggest council officers had been told to “look more closely at parking and community safety to find further reductions (or additional income).”

In response, Rowley said the council does not use parking to raise revenue, but “it would be remiss of us not to budget for the future or take into account the full impact of any potential changes to any of its policies.”

Parking charges are having an impact on many downtown churches across the country.

Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol has seen a number of its building’s users move on as a result of tighter restrictions in the downtown in the last 18 months, Rev. John Houseago told The Baptist Times.

In Cheltenham, the council extended its charging period for parking until 8 p.m.

Cambray Baptist Church’s associate pastor, Fred Hughes, said that it would have some effect on attendance. However, when morning charges were brought in a few years ago, the church had approached local businesses for permission to park on their premises on Sundays.

Proposed charges in Oxford were branded a “tax on going to church” by clergy there.

This article appeared originally in TheBaptistTimes of Great Britain.

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