COUNCIL bosses have sought to scotch criticism that their festive push to attract more town centre shoppers is literally too late in the day.

Darlington Borough Council leisure chief Councillor Nick Wallis said the ‘free after three’ initiative over the Christmas period was "one of the most attractive car parking offers we have anywhere in the Tees Valley and Durham area".

The authority believes offering free parking from November 22, when the Christmas lights will be switched on, until January 2 after 3pm in its off-street car parks  may encourage shoppers to change patterns and shop later in the day, resulting in a demand towards peak hours in terms of traffic.

It has been estimated the offer could cost the council £25,000 in parking revenue, but the authority's opposition leader told a meeting of the cabinet it should consider forgoing more car park fees and increase the free parking offer.

Following previous claims the authority had done "too little too late" to arrest the decline of the town's shopping area, Conservative councillor Heather Scott said the latest attempt to increase visitors would fall short.

She said: "Whilst I appreciate you are trying to do something, and we do have a duty to talk up Darlington, I honestly don't feel this is going to make that much difference at three o'clock.

"I don't know when you walk through the town, but at two o'clock it was absolutely dead today. I really do feel three o'clock is too late, unless we get a commitment from all of the shops to open until six o'clock, and I know it's controversial, the market as well, I don't think you're going to get that number of people that are going to come back into the town between three o'clock and six o'clock."

Cllr Scott added the loss of Marks & Spencer had hit the town hard and people had got used to shopping elsewhere in places like Teesside Park and Northallerton.

She said: "We have got to try to do more than this to win them back. Whilst Binns are here they have said it's only going to be for 18 months. It's not a very long time for us to try and get the footfall back and Christmas is a time you would hope you'd have more people coming into the town."

Liberal Democrat councillor Anne-Marie Curry said the offer effectively excluded groups such as elderly and vulnerable people who would not want to be in the town centre as it got dark.

Cllr Wallis said the offer was part of an effort "to make our parking offers as simple as possible", would offer certainty to shoppers and would be "well worth the investment".

He said free-after-three combined with two hours' free parking in car parks surrounding the town centre, meant shoppers could park for free from 1pm and the move would be the "best return" the council could get for its investment..

Cllr Wallis said: "I think it's an imaginative offer. For some people there will always be more you can do. It does seem there is a concerted attempt to be negative or pour cold water on anything this local authority does with traders to promote the shopping offer in the town centre."