THE countdown to Christmas is really set to take off today when the festive lights around the town are switched on.

The Christmas tree appeared outside HSBC bank, off The Square, at the start of the week and contractors have been busy stringing lights throughout the streets ahead of tonight’s big switch-on.

The Petersfield Town Council event, which traditionally heralds the town’s passage into the festive season, will run from 5pm-7.30pm. It is expected to feature stalls, children’s rides, and a special guest to flick the switch and light up the town.

But one thing town shoppers won’t see this year are the three trees around The Square lit up with sparkly white lights as in previous years.

Uneven paving slabs around the three maples – two big ones close to the High Street and a third smaller tree opposite Caffe Nero – has forced East Hampshire District Council to uproot them.

According to district council spokesman Will Parsons, “the paving slabs are being damaged and pushed out of place by tree roots, presenting a tripping hazard to pedestrians”.

The old trees are expected to be removed next Monday – just three days into the Christmas shopping season heralded by the switch-on of the lights – with repairs then made to The Square before the axed maples can be replaced by three smaller ones.

The new trees will be planted in specially-dug ‘tree pits’ built to encourage the roots to grow downwards, added Mr Parsons.

Citing the district council’s tree officers, Mr Parsons said “the roots couldn’t be pruned without taking out large areas of paving and then they would grow again anyway”.

On a brighter note, shoppers in Petersfield can start their Christmas spree by parking free on Saturday, December 5.

East Hampshire District Council car parks will be completely free on the first Saturday of December, one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Fees will be waived in car parks in Petersfield and Alton as part of the council’s commitment to Small Business Saturday.

The national campaign seeks to encourage shoppers to focus on local, independent businesses rather than national chains.

Research shows that for every £100 spent in a local business £68 is likely to stay in the community, compared to just £43 of that spent in a national chain.

Nick Drew, EHDC’s portfolio holder for economic development, said: “At East Hampshire District Council we know that small and medium-sized businesses are the lifeblood of the local economy.

“As a result we work hard to support the vital independent businesses wherever we can, whether it is through £500 grants for start-ups, business advice or supporting apprentices.

“We want to be one of the most business-friendly councils in the country and our commitment to providing free parking on Small Business Saturday shows that we recognise the importance of our independent shops and the benefit they bring to the local economy.”

Richard Millard, the district council’s deputy leader, said: “Saturday, December 5, is one of the biggest shopping days of the year as the Christmas period gets under way in earnest.

“We recognise the value of small businesses and we know that if you have plenty of healthy and successful independent businesses, you have a healthy and successful economy in East Hampshire.

“Shopping locally not only means you get a fantastic personal service but it also ensures that more of your money will stay in the area, and that benefits everyone.

“Free car parking is a great way to kick-off the Christmas shopping period. I hope everyone takes full advantage of the day and remembers to pay our small businesses a visit.”

The free parking in Petersfield on December 5 covers the car parks at Swan Street, Festival Hall, Castle Yard, Central car park, and The Causeway.