A MASTERPLAN to shape a town centre's future is set to be redrawn following "seismic changes" on the high street.

Darlington Borough Council said given "the very fast pace of retail change currently being experienced", particularly with the proposed closures of Binns department store and Marks and Spencer, it needed to revisit physical regeneration opportunities and its vision for the town centre as a whole.

The move comes as the authority launches a key element of its strategy to increase visitors to the town – two hours free parking is set to be introduced to the council’s long stay car parks from Monday.

The authority's economic regeneration boss Councillor Chris McEwan said it had been recognised Darlington's town centre would look very different in the future and encouraging a mix of uses for sites, such as residential, work and leisure, in the town centre would be key to its success.

He said: "We have had some seismic changes in the town centre recently. These have reinforced the change that we have been witnessing for some time, so we need a refreshed masterplan.

"Given the circumstances around Binns and M&S now is the right time to review our strategy that we put in place five years ago."

An officers' report set to be considered by the council's leading members next week reveals despite numerous initiatives to increase the number of town centre visitors, footfall in the town centre from January to early June was six per cent down on the same period for the previous year. 

Officers suggested poor weather at the start of the year may have impacted on shopper numbers and highlighted that declining high street visitor numbers was a national trend.

They also noted ten new traders in the town centre over the last four months, ongoing work to build another office block at Feethams and that other retailers were now using major premises such as those vacated by BHS and Woolworths.

The report states: "Whilst no doubt we are in challenging times, Darlington town centre is still thriving and a key sub-regional location for people to visit and shop."

Cllr McEwan said the council aimed to increase the number of events, such as the Food Festival, but due to its limited resources following funding cuts, working in partnership with a range of organisations to attract people to the town centre would be a cornerstone of the authority's strategy.

He warned residents: "We have got to use the town centre or lose it. We have got to get behind our traders, pubs, restaurants and other leisure offerings and particularly the independent traders."

Cllr McEwan suggested while deals were available in the town centre which compared favourably with online retailers, traders in the town centre were "recognising that they need to change the way they operate" and change to some shops opening hours was likely.  

Liberal Democrat councillor Anne-Marie Curry said the Labour-run authority "should have brought in a different strategy for the town centre years ago".

She said as the authority launched two hours free parking at its car parks surrounding the town centre, it needed to review charges for parking inside the inner ring road.

She added the council should focus work on attracting specialist shops that would attract people from outside the area, by offering discounts and that it had missed a trick by deciding not to move the market back to the Market Place.

Cllr Curry said: "We lost a lot of market traders as they were strung out all over the place. We still need to think about the strategy for markets and should host more specialist markets."