A FREE parking scheme to boost town centre trade has become so popular it is set for a long stay in Dorchester.

It is due to be rolled out to the county town’s on-street parking zones and could be exported to other towns in the UK and Ireland.

Phil Gordon, of the Dorchester Business Improvement District (BID), has hailed the parking voucher scheme a ‘runaway success’ and says it will be in place for at least two years.

Since last November, the on-trial project gave shoppers who spend £10 or more in local shops two hours of free parking in Dorchester.

Some 75 businesses that are signed up to the scheme have reported a boost in their low-end sales.

And inquiries about the idea have been received from Leamington Spa and as far afield as Limerick in Ireland.

Mr Gordon said: “Paying for on-street parking is still the one thing in Dorchester that people talk about.

“The thing that excites me about the voucher scheme is that apart from the fact that it has been well received by motorists, the businesses have said: ‘Can we make this permanent?’ People are spending more money in the shops.”

Shoppers who like to stop off for a few minutes and buy a few items are also embracing the scheme, Mr Gordon said.

He added: “When the parking meters were introduced a lot of ‘SAS shoppers’ were lost – the people who stop off for a few items and like to get in and get out.

“If you’re having a quick lunch with a friend then it’s likely you’ll spend more than £10. We’re a creative bunch as a human race and people will work out ways to make sure they do get their parking for free.

“In these difficult times, anybody who is walking through Dorchester and sees a discarded parking ticket is really picking up £1 – up to two hours free parking.”

West Dorset District Council leader Robert Gould said it was ‘fantastic’ the scheme is such a success.

He added: “Helping the local economy in these difficult times is one of the council’s key objectives and this is the sixth year running that we’ve frozen short stay parking charges to encourage shoppers and visitors into the town centres.”

On-street parking spaces, managed by Dorset County Council, will come under the scheme from March 1.

A council spokesman said: “We are pleased to be working closely with the BID on this initiative and in any other way we can to further the best interests of the town’s viability.”

Mr Gordon added: “The on street meters only produce the one ticket and shops will be happy to offer the parking refund if people bring it in later in the day.”

Motorists using WDDC car parks should tear off one half of the ticket and show it to staff at shops that are members of the scheme to get two hours of free parking.

All shops displaying a blue and white ‘free parking’ sticker are members. They are listed at dorchesterdorset.com