CAUTIONS have been raised after a council announced it was developing plans to safely reopen one of the region’s busiest shopping areas.

Leading councillors have questioned whether visitors can safely return to some areas of Darlington town centre once social distancing guidance is further relaxed and more shops and restaurants are able to open their doors.

The authority appears to have less than two weeks to get its plans in place as the government has stated it aims to allow some non-essential businesses to reopen from June 1, while others, such as hairdressers, cinemas and pubs will be allowed to reopen from July 4.

Darlington Borough Council said its transport, business support, health and safety, town centre and public health teams were working on long-term plans “to ensure shoppers can move about while maintaining distance, avoid large gatherings and keep the area clean”.

The authority said it had talked to a wide range of retailers, business owners and hospitality venues to ensure all views as well as the lockdown experience of essential businesses had been taken into account.

No details of the plan have been released, but the council has stated it “may include signage and additional seating”.

Councillor Alan Marshall, economy cabinet member, said: “Darlington’s retailers and service providers are the heart of the town centre. It’s vitally important that we support the shops, restaurants and services in our town once the situation improves if they are to recover, but we need to ensure that people feel confident while doing so. Our teams are looking at every aspect of a visit to the town centre, from parking to walking about and from sitting down for a rest to having a bite to eat.

“Darlington has shown itself to be resilient in so many ways during this situation and I’m confident that the town centre and its businesses will be no different.”

However, ahead of a briefing on the plans other prominent members of the authority said while they appreciated the council had a duty to promote a vibrant town centre, they had misgivings over whether the relaunch was being based on London coronavirus figures rather than the situation in the North-East.

Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Anne-Marie Curry said recent figures showed coronavirus cases were not slowing down in some nearby areas.

She added: “Having heard what’s been happening in supermarkets, where people regularly break social distancing rules and stop to chat in the middle of the aisle, I am not convinced there will be the resources available to enforce social distancing across the town centre.”

Councillor Stephen Harker, Labour group leader, praised the council for working to develop a comprehensive plan.

He said: “In the short-term it is going to be very difficult to come up with a mechanism that will work well for the health and safety of the public and staff and be responsive to businesses’ needs.

“It is going to be particularly challenging in Darlington as there are many businesses based in alleys and a lot of shops old, buildings which have small spaces. People have questioned whether some shops in the town centre can open with any sense of safety.”