DARLINGTON town centre should be “shrunk” in the coming years to enable it to serve residents best, a meeting of leading councillors has heard.

Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet was told there was cross-party support for a move to cut the town centre’s size, as members approved a move to redraw its masterplan for the area in the wake of House of Fraser and Mark & Spencer’s plans to close their stores in the town.

Following accusations that the council was doing too little, too late to attract visitors to the town centre, the authority’s leader Councillor Bill Dixon said it had not “just sat on its haunches and done nothing”.

At the meeting, held days after the council launched two hours’ free parking at its long-stay car parks, Cllr Dixon pointed towards the Feethams Leisure Development, work on a multi-storey car park and work to bring in a new partner and investment to Darlington markets, as well as the opening of Department for Education offices, bringing in 500 potential shoppers to the town.

Cllr Dixon said the authority needed to work to Darlington’s strengths, such as the hosting of its May food festival, and appreciate that people visited the town centre other than just to shop.

He said: “We are never going to compete with the Metro Centre or Leeds. We need our own unique selling point. It is important that we refresh the whole strategy on the town centre.

“What a town centre will look like in five years’ time is incredibly different to what it looks like now.

“I expect the authority will one day have to look at some radical shrinking of the town centre. If you go to our twin town, Amiens, most retail shops only occupy the ground floor.”

The authority’s Conservative leader, Councillor Heather Scott agreed the size of the town centre needed to be reconsidered.

She urged the council to review parking in the town centre and to encourage independent traders to locate there to attract shoppers from further afield.

She added: “Whatever we are going to do, we need to do it fairly quickly.”

After the meeting, the council’s leisure and environment boss, Councillor Nick Wallis, questioned the benefits of offering free town centre parking when its car parks were already well-used. He added: “The key thing is to attract shoppers to car parks with free capacity where otherwise they wouldn’t be coming to Darlington at all.

“One of the solutions to the town centre is making sure bus patronage is up.

“There are over three million journeys in and out of Darlington town centre by bus every year, so we need to make sure the bus offer is as attractive as the car parking offer.”