THE FUTURE of one of Thornbury’s free car parks looks uncertain after its sudden closure this week.

Signs were erected at the entrance to Castle Court car park on Thursday night informing the public that the car park was closed.

The unexpected closure of the short stay car park overnight left many locals confused about what would become of the site.

Natwest bank confirmed to the Gazette that the site had been sold to a residential developer but declined to comment any further.

South Gloucestershire Council has not received any planning applications for the site.

The council had rented the land, off the High Street, from NatWest bank for over 40 years, creating 78 free short stay spaces for shoppers, a third of the town’s short stay parking provision.

The local authority confirmed that they did not renew the lease on the 0.67 acre site, which expired at midnight on Friday.

A council spokesperson said: "On October 25 2013 the NatWest Bank served formal notice to terminate our current agreement regarding the Castle Court short stay car park. This termination took effect on 31 January 2014.

"To ensure disruption to car park users is kept to a minimum, we have created a new entrance to the long stay car park at Castle Court and will be reallocating parking spaces to include short stay provision. Once the recent wet weather recedes, we will be carrying out work to mark these short stay bays and add new signage.”

South Gloucestershire Councillor Maggie Tyrrell told the Gazette the council opted not to renew the lease because of the cost rose significantly leaving the council no alternative but to drop the lease.

She said the council tried to come to a reasonable agreement with NatWest but the bank was determined to take back the land.

Cllr Tyrrell said: “We were aware that this could happen. We have had quite a long battle with NatWest trying to keep it open but they were asking for lots of money for the car park, a minimum of half a million.

“There was nothing we could do about it unless we were prepared to take out loans and even then we didn’t think we would get any funding because suitability for a loan is assessed in terms of value for money and because it’s a free car park they wouldn’t be willing to invest.”

A NatWest spokesperson said: “I can confirm that NatWest have sold the car park to a residential developer, but unfortunately I'm not able to disclose the details due to commercial confidentiality.

Business owners in the town said the closure could affect trade.

Sandra Davies, owner of The Swan pub on High Street said was a shame to lose Castle Court car park because it was is the only major car park in the town itself. She said it was convenient because there were no major roads to cross to get into the town centre.

Mike Nichols, 23, works as a personal trainer in Thornbury. He said he used the car park when he met clients in the town.

He said: “The Castle Court car park is close to everywhere –especially if the weather is bad.

“If it is closed permanently, it will be an inconvenience to me and many others.”

Craig Wiltshire, 33, works as an estate agent in Thornbury.

He said: “I think one of the main attractions of the town is the availability of free parking.”

Vice-chairman of Town Development for Thornbury Town Council Clive Parkinson said: "I regret the loss of the parking spaces and will look to South Gloucestershire in their parking review of the town that so that it doesn't affect the financial viability of the High Street."

South Gloucestershire is unusual among local authorities in not charging motorists to use council-owned car parks, other than its Park and Ride facilities. The council continues to provide free short stay car parking at Rock Street and St Mary Street car parks in Thornbury.