The Midlands' biggest shopping complex is to impose parking charges on its customers for the first time.

The move, from next year, brings the #1 billion Merry Hill centre into line with Birmingham and other West Midlands towns and cities.

Westfield, Merry Hill's Australian owners, finally bowed to years of pressure from council leaders who objected to the centre's ample free parking spaces.

They said Merry Hill enjoyed an unfair advantage over the likes of Birmingham, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall, where shoppers have always had to pay to park.

With 10,000 spaces, Merry Hill is able to offer almost as much parking as Birmingham city centre, where there are 14,000 spaces in multi-storey and on-street car parks.

The decision will pave the way for Merry Hill to be classified under the Regional Spatial Strategy as a strategic town centre and allow for further expansion of the shopping centre. There are plans for an additional 36,000 square metres of shopping space by 2016.

Government planning guidance requires all town centres to operate a car park charging regime.

Merry Hill's customers will have to pay 50p for up to one hour and #1.50 for between one and three hours. Each additional hour will be charged at #1.

Parking will be free after 7pm and there will be a #1 charge all day on Sundays and bank holidays.

The cost of installing ticketing machinery and improving the car park has been estimated at #10 million. Westfield has also agreed to pay #4.7 million toward road improvements and #36.5 million for the metro extension from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill.

Westfield described the cash injection as a substantial contribution to improving public transport.

A record 23 million customers visited Merry Hill's 220 stores last year.

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