USES of Darlington town centre must return to those which featured in the 1930s and 1940s, the councillor charged with overseeing its transformation for the 21st century has said.

Darlington Borough Council’s economy and regeneration boss Councillor Chris McEwan said while the town centre had recently been rated the third best in the region, after Newcastle and the Metro Centre, by the North-East Chamber of Commerce, it had become overly reliant on retailers.

Cllr McEwan, who is also the Labour-run council’s deputy leader, was speaking about its ongoing response to the rise of online shopping, the closure of leading shops and an 18 per cent decline in town centre visitors over the past three years.

The meeting heard Conservative members express frustration over a lack of progress in improving aspects of the town centre, despite the council having recognised some of the issues for many years.

Councillor Pauline Culley said: “The perception is that this market has been declining for donkey’s years. What are we doing different this time that will actually make something happen?”

The committee was told a consultation exercise was set to be launched over “bold” plans to refurbish and redevelop the Victorian market, which would ensure its position as “a jewel in the crown was strengthened".

The meeting also heard the council was set to submit a challenge for a share of the Government’s £675m Future High Street Fund for other schemes.

After Councillor Bob Donoghue questioned why the market had not been moved back to the town’s Market Place, Cllr McEwan said the traders felt their High Row location was more profitable.

Cllr McEwan said while the national average proportion of retail stores in town centres was 26 per cent, 55 per cent of Darlington’s heart was comprised of shops and there was just 220 homes.

He told members: “If you go back in time town centres were places where people lived, worked, went to school, sought primary care, shopped, drank and went to the cinema and theatre. There was much more mixed use. Retail has become king and we have seen that over the past 50 years.”

Cllr McEwan said alongside actively encouraging a greater mix of uses for town centre buildings, key planks of the council’s objectives would be to revamp areas such as Skinnergate and The Yards, improve the area’s cleanliness, highlight the town’s heritage and increase the amount of greenery.

Conservative councillor Gerald Lee said he was heartened to hear of the wide range of actions that were set to be enacted after being on the council’s agenda for many years. He added Darlington should be marketed as a base for tourists to visit North Yorkshire, the Lake District or Northumberland.