Politicians have clashed over calls to reinstate free parking across town centres after charges were reintroduced by some councils in the region. 

In 2021, Mayor Ben Houchen provided Tees Valley Combined Authority funding to make parking free for a maximum of three hours  in council-run car parks in each of the five Tees Valley main town centres – Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Stockton - as well as a number of car parks in Guisborough and Yarm. 

The funding, which had been allocated for two years, was to encourage more people to support shops, cafes and other businesses in their town centres and high streets to give them a much needed boost when coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

The funding ran out at the end of 2022, and councillors from across political parties have signed the letter asking for funding to once again be provided to support a free parking offer in Hartlepool.

Backed by all thirteen Labour councillors, three Conservative and two independents, the first letter called the withdrawing of free parking coming at “the worst possible time” amidst the cost-of-living crisis.

Labour’s Cllr Jonathan Brash, who is also hoping to be the party's representative in Parliament for Hartlepool at the next election, wrote: “We noted your recent campaign against parking charges at Preston Park in Eaglescliffe and would question why you think charges there are wrong, but charges in Hartlepool are right?

“We would respectfully request that you review this decision, as you did with the cutting of the Tees Flex Bus Service, and reinstate the funding for free parking for the next twelve months.”

But in response, Mr Houchen said the car parks he's referring to are "owned by the council and the charges being introduced are being introduced by the local council".

Hartlepool Conservative Cllr Cameron Stokell, chairman of neighbourhood services committee, stressed it was always known the free parking offer was a "temporary measure". The council also still has in place a "free after 3pm" parking policy in three town centre car parks.

Cllr Stokell said: "The significant impact of inflation on the council budget means we can't afford to replace the funding provided by the TVCA as other services would have to be cut. While I'm disappointed this scheme won't continue, I'm also realistic that there is no magic money tree.

"If I'm chair of neighbourhood services after the May elections I'll look at it again if need be."

In Darlington, the council’s cabinet agreed to continue the free parking offer until the end of June. There are currently no plans to extend the free parking beyond that date.

A further £387,000 from the authority’s budget will be spent on maintaining the discount for shoppers on top of the £475,000 allocated last year, meaning a total of £862,000 is being spent on the scheme.

Councillor Andy Keir, local services lead, said: “This is all about supporting the town centre, and making sure people are in the town centre and making it sustainable and supporting businesses.”

Read more: Ben Houchen cancels appearance at Transport for the North conference

Meanwhile, in Stockton and Middlesbrough, the charges have been reintroduced. 

Councillor Mike Smith, Stockton Borough Council's cabinet member for environment and transport, said: “For people parking in Stockton Town Centre and Yarm High Street there will still be free parking for 60 minutes, or £1 for three hours in many Council car parks and parking areas.”

A spokesperson for Middlesbrough Council said: “The TVCA subsidy was only applied to the Captain Cook and Ferry Road car parks for three hours free parking.

“There were no complaints from Councillors about reinstating the charges.”

Mr Houchen said: "He (Cllr Brash) seems to not understand that the car parks he's referring to are owned by the council and the charges being introduced are being introduced by the local council.

"So I would suggest he speak to his local council."