A MOVE to spend £10.6m to offer motorists free car parking in Tees Valley town centres to help boost the local economy has been criticised as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

The five Tees Valley councils approved the introduction of a free parking scheme which will see the revenue local authorities receive from charges at publicly-owned car parks compensated, so none of them will be financially impacted.

The initiative wll make parking free for a minimum of two hours and up to a maximum of three hours in council-run car parks in Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Stockton, as well as a number of car parks in Guisborough and Yarm, from January.

Due to the majority of council owned car parks being in Darlington, that council looks set to receive about £1.9m compensation a year, while Hartlepool will get about £1m and Middlesbrough £850,000 annually.

Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said struggling high streets were in even more of a desperate need of a helping hand due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, adding: “Our retail and hospitality businesses in our town centres have been some of the hardest hit, so when it is safe for people to return to shops, cafes and restaurants, we need to make it as easy and convenient as possible for people to give them the vital support they need.”

However, opposition politicians in Darlington, where most of the public funds will be spent, said the free parking scheme followed others which had made marginal difference to the number of town centre visitors and studies had shown choice of shops and cleanliness were more influential in shopping destination decisions.

Green Party group leader Councillor Matthew Snedker said due to the low number of extra shoppers they had attracted previous free car parking initiatives in Darlington had cost taxpayers about £50 per journey. He said: “This latest scheme benefits those who well enough to drive, old enough to drive and can afford to run cars.”

Labour group leader Councillor Stephen Harker said about 40 per cent of journeys into Darlington before the pandemic were by bus, and those people were not being offered help.

He said: “The cost per car journey of this scheme will be enormous. It will not be doing what it is supposed to nor will it be a cost effective way of doing it.”