Christians pocket thousands of taxpayers’ money in waived parking fees

The National Secular Society has warned a Surrey council that it is breaking the law by allowing churchgoers to park free while charging everyone else.

A Freedom of Information request to Woking Borough Council has revealed that preferential parking concessions for people going to church saved the worshippers £55,864 between 1 January 2009 and 30 June 2011.

According to the council, church congregations are able to take advantage of the parking subsidy if they are parking in Victoria Way and Brewery Road car parks. The churchgoers insert tickets in a ‘validating device’ held at the place of worship. This encodes the ticket that can then be inserted into the exit barrier allowing them to leave without payment.

The figures amount to £39,221 at Coign Church, £11,137 at Christ Church and £5,504 at Trinity Methodist Church, adding up to a total of £55,864 in the two-and-a-half year period.

According to the council, the decision to introduce the system was agreed by the executive in response to the town’s pay-on-foot car parks.

Sue Waddington, a youth worker and member at Trinity Methodist Church said it would be unfair to make people pay for parking who go to church. She said: “We are very limited in parking so it does help. It is given to people who want to worship, not go shopping. A lot of people who go to the church don’t go shopping on a Sunday.”

Geoff McManus, the council’s neighbourhood services manager, said: “The council has always been sympathetic towards car parking arrangements for town centre faith groups. Since the phased introduction from 2003 of pay-on-foot systems into council-owned car parks, arrangements have been made with three town centre churches to enable worshipers to attend morning services free of charge.

“The arrangements in place at this time are a result of direct representations to the council from the churches concerned. If we receive representations from other faith groups, the council would consider these in line with current policy.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “This arrangement is almost certainly illegal under equality legislation and the NSS has written to Woking Council to advise them of this.”

Mr Sanderson said that it was likely that many councils throughout the country are operating similar systems. He said: “I encourage our members to check the websites of their local authority to see if there are other concessionary parking arrangements for ‘faith groups’. If Woking’s exemptions were to be replicated throughout the country, the subsidy would amount to tens of millions of pounds.

“We have advised the council that under the Equality Act these arrangements almost certainly amount to illegal discrimination. We await their response with interest.”