SMALL traders’ leaders in Huntingdonshire’s market towns have given a cautious welcome to plans for limited free parking in Huntingdon, St Ives and St Neots in the run-up to Christmas.

The district council has decided shoppers can park free in its car parks after 3pm on weekdays between December 5 and the Friday before Christmas, December 23. Parking is already free in Ramsey all week and across the district on Sundays.

Malcolm Lyons, chairman of the Huntingdonshire branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, which represents many independent shopkeepers, welcomed the decision - as far as it went.

The scheme will not apply, for example, to the car park at Sainsbury's, in Huntingdon.

And Mr Lyons urged councillors to remember that shops in market towns also needed help for the other 11 months of the year.

Councillor Darren Tysoe, HDC's executive councillor for environment, said: "We hope that this free parking offer will encourage residents to do their Christmas shopping in their local town.

"We have worked together with the town councils and local businesses to come up with this special offer and I'm sure that this will provide a welcome boost to business for our local shops and services."

Shoppers will not have to pay and display a ticket during the special offer period. Signs and stickers will be on display in car parks and on the car parking machines explaining the times when the offer is valid.

The offer is not valid in the Sainsbury's or Waitrose supermarket car parks.

Mr Lyons said: "Christmas is a very important time for retailers, but I'm also concerned about the rest of the year, but anything that helps people coming into town to shop is good news."

He would like to see charges levied at out-of-town retail car parks, which were taking trade from the high street.