A discounted price of £1 would be charged for up to two hours before normal tariffs of up to £6.10 kick in, if the plans go ahead.
The three multi-storey car parks which would be affected by the proposals, the Octagon, Deane Road and Topp Way, are all operated by NCP.
The provision of free parking, together with increased operation costs, means that the council’s income from the NCP car parks has fallen from more than £300,000 a year on average to around just £25,000 last year.
But deputy leader Martyn Cox, who will have the final say on the proposal, said the main factor behind the decision is that people are using Bolton’s car parks to commute to Manchester.
He said: “The idea of free town centre parking is to attract people to the town centre to shop and to support the retail sector.
“We’re getting quite a bit of people coming into the town centre, parking and commuting into Manchester. We needed to look at that because that’s not what the scheme was put in place to do. So we have come up with a scheme which includes two hours parking for £1. We don’t think that’s an unreasonable charge given that the car park comes at a cost.
“It has had an unintended consequence that hasn’t been thought through. People are using Bolton town centre car parking and going into Manchester. In effect, the scheme isn’t working in its current form. It’s been put in place for one purpose, but it’s been used for another purpose.”
Cllr Cox, who spent £9.50 himself on parking in Manchester city centre at the weekend, said Bolton offers the cheapest parking charges in Greater Manchester.
Since the free parking scheme in Bolton was fully rolled out in May 2013, footfall in the town centre has almost tripled.
The deputy leader was asked whether he thinks the proposed charge will have a negative impact on businesses in Bolton.
He said: “Not at these prices. That’s not to say we can charge anything. But given the levels we are talking about, I don’t expect it to have a significant impact.
“Retail is under pressure across the region. I’m keen that we keep the cost at an absolute minimum. We have to balance the amount that the taxpayer and the people who use the car park pay. I think it’s reasonable that the full cost should not be borne by the taxpayer.
“At the moment, I’m satisfied that we’ve struck the right balance but if we subsequently find out that we have got that wrong then that will be reversed.”
The decision to scrap the free parking scheme has been called-in for further scrutiny by the Labour group. Speaking ahead of a scrutiny committee meeting last night, Cllr Akthar Zaman, said that his party is “disgusted” by the deputy leader’s decision.
He said: “During election campaigns, the Conservatives pretend to be somehow on the side of drivers. This latest stunt puts that myth to bed, and even die-hard Conservative supporters will be shocked by this move.
“Labour will do all that we can to stop this decision from taking place, but if it does, we pledge that a future Labour council will restore the free parking initiative which we see as a vital part of protecting town centre businesses and jobs.”
Lib Dem leader Roger Hayes said he has his reservations about the scheme. He said: “I’m very sorry to see it go. One of the attractions we’ve got in the town centre is free parking. Immediately, when you introduce a charge, however small, people sense they have to pay and if we’re not careful, they will start going back to Horwich and the Middlebrook area.”
After going through the scrutiny process at the council, the decision will return to the deputy leader which a recommendation from councillors.