A NORTH-EAST mayor has pledged to scrap car parking charges in five towns in a matter of 'months' if his campaign for re-election succeeds in May.

Today, the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said fees levied at council-owned car parks in Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Hartlepool would be scrapped in a boost bid for the high street.

However, Mr Houchen said proposed plans would not affect council tax or income in any "way, shape or form," when speaking to The Northern Echo.

Mr Houchen said: "Our high streets need all the support they can get. Local business are the lifeblood of our area and they need a helping hand.

The Northern Echo:

“It is a depressing sight for people to see empty shops on the high street.

"By introducing free parking, we can drive up the number of people visiting our town centres, increase spending, boost our economy and create jobs while making Tees Valley an even more dynamic and vibrant place to live and do business."

Mr Houchen, who last week pledged to bring steelmaking "back to Teesside" and create thousands of jobs at the former SSI Steelworks site in Redcar, said the high street could still 'flourish' despite online competition.

He said: "This (free parking) could be done within the first few months of my re-election, that depends on how each council wants to move.

Mr Houchen said conversations with each council had gone well, but said each will have flexibility over the amount of free hours available.

The Northern Echo:

Darlington Council's East Street car park could become free under the plans Picture: GOOGLE

Currently, Mr Houchen's plans for free parking indicate at least three hours without charge across the five town centres.

He added: “Councils could choose to increase four or five hours of parking.

"This plan will not impact our council tax in any way, shape or form – the councils won’t lose out on a single penny.

"The money used to deliver this pledge comes from central government, money which I have been given as part of my role as metro mayor.”

'Traders have asked for this' 

The Northern Echo:

In Darlington, where free parking on a Sunday has been successfully trialled, Conservative Councillor Heather Scott and leader of Darlington Borough Council said the pledge had answered what traders had been asking for.

She said: "This is important for the town centre in particular, it’s something that the traders have been asking us for a long time.

"We encouraged free parking on a Sunday, just as a test – some people say it won’t help but we had feedback from people who said they came here because of the free parking."

'It has potential to bring more jobs to our high streets'

The Brexit Party's Cllr Shane Moore and leader of Hartlepool Borough Council said the pledge could equal more jobs.

He said: "I wholeheartedly welcome this pledge and I’ve already started discussions with Ben about how we can get the most out of this opportunity for Hartlepool.

“This has the potential to bring more people into the town meaning more jobs and businesses in our high streets and town centre – especially when coupled with the Towns Fund investment in Hartlepool.”

'This is the first time I've heard Ben mention the high street' 

The Northern Echo:

However Labour's Jessie Joe Jacobs, running for Tees Valley Mayor, questioned Mr Houchen's pledge for free parking and said town centre's needed more.

She said: "Over the last 7 years I've championed our high streets. This is the first time I've heard Ben Houchen mention them.

"They can be revived but it will take more than free parking. We need to make them key areas for people to live, work and play.

"We need to make sure that our high street is protected.

"The decline we have witnessed under 9 years of the Conservatives is devastating and we will work to turn this around."

"Our coming policy announcements will focus on putting our high streets back into the community and making them accessible to everyone."