CHRISTMAS shoppers could get free parking in Huntingdonshire town centres in a bid to keep them out of Cambridge, Peterborough and Bedford. Retail trade in the market towns of Huntingdon, St Ives and St Neots received a boost in the summer when high fuel prices persuaded local people to save fuel by shopping locally. Traders, many of whom derive the bulk of their annual business from the Christmas people, want to keep them in the market towns even in the face of falling petrol and diesel prices. Huntingdonshire District Council's cabinet has asked officers to look at how the council could help local traders and other businesses, including free short-term town centre parking on Saturdays in the lead up to Christmas, according to Councillor Peter Bucknell, whose portfolio includes parking. "We are also asking the traders what would be best for them," he added. Shops in Huntingdon have reported steady sales or increases of up to three per cent on a year ago, helped by fuel price increases and bucking the national trend, town centre manager Katy Sismore told The Hunts Post. With the Queensgate shopping centre car parks in Peterborough offering free parking between 6pm and 9pm in December, Huntingdonshire councillors wanted something to trump the offer. Parking in the market towns is free for post-6pm arrivals and all day Sunday anyway, so Saturday was the obvious target. Changing every town centre ticket-issuing machine in the district every Friday evening to issue free tickets and changing them back every Saturday would be a logistical nightmare. But HDC is looking at extending the refund schemes operated by Sainsbury's and Waitrose to other traders in a raft of measures to try to keep shoppers local. St Neots town centre manager Tom McCormick believes it is all still to play for. "Early September trading was a bit low here, but it has picked up since then," he said. "I get the impression that people are biding their time before deciding where they will do their Christmas shopping." His counterpart in St Ives, Jane Bowd agreed, but warned that, if shoppers failed to patronise local traders in the run-up to Christmas, the town could lose some smaller independent retailers in the new year. Free Saturday parking would be a real bonus to offset the hike in charges earlier this month. Huntingdon's town centre manager Katy Sismore said she would be launching a campaign to urge Christmas shoppers into Huntingdon on Sundays, when parking is already free. If Ian Leatherbarrow, HDC's head of policy, is right, there is good news for the market towns. "There's a better offer locally, and people have been getting used to that." Corrine Garbett, the council's sustainable economic development manager, said the council's pre-Christmas shop-locally promotion could include roadside banners and posters to remind shoppers of what was available without the need to travel to the cities. HDC might use schools to get the message to parents, as it did during the recent food festival to encourage healthy eating of local produce. The council was also looking at ways of measuring how successful any campaign had been, she added. Mr Leatherbarrow said he was looking at ways of helping the wider local economy through the economic downturn. The diversity of local business - several thousand, mostly small, companies operating across virtually every sector - makes the district less likely to suffer the effects than areas that rely overwhelmingly on the prosperity of a particular market. "We are looking at whatever we can do to help businesses that may be feeling the pinch, not just retailers," Mr Leatherbarrow said. Measures could include promoting low-cost leisure activities for families and ensuring those entitled claimed benefits, and plans for the package would emerge in the next few weeks. "We hope we can ride it a bit, and that it will be shorter and shallower than previous recessions," he said. John Bridge, chiefexecutive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, backed the parking initiative and urged the town centre partnerships and HDC to join together in special events "with a real Christmas theme". Malcolm Lyons, Huntingdonshire chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said he would welcome an initiative that made shoppers' parking free on Saturdays. "The new car parking regime is a disincentive, a catalyst for people to go to Peterborough or Cambridge. Not charging on Saturdays would help enormously." For the wider business community, he is looking for ways to reduce delays in settlement of small firms' bills, not just by councils, but particularly by large companies. HDC's leader, Councillor Ian Bates, said all options were being considered and assessed. He would not be drawn further.