Labour's candidate to be the next Tees Valley Mayor has launched his campaign with a pledge to bring back free car parking in town centres across the region. 

In 2021, current Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen introduced two hours of free car parking in the five main towns of the region - Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Stockton, as well as a number of car parks in Guisborough and Yarm.

The scheme, intended to help with the post-Covid recovery, ran for more than two years, but the Labour administration currently in control of Darlington Borough Council, which Chris McEwan is deputy leader of, re-instated parking charges in 2023 due to insufficient funds to continue the scheme.

If he is elected Tees Valley Mayor in the election on May 2, he plans to bring the scheme back.

During his launch speech at the Riverside Stadium on Friday, Mr McEwan argued he can be a 'Mayor people can trust' after the controversy surrounding the Teesworks development scheme and Lord Houchen.

The 97-page report published in January found no evidence of corruption but did include 28 recommendations focused on governance and transparency.

The inquiry, ordered by Michael Gove, was carried out by three senior local authority officers.

Mr McEwan said: "I will lift the cloak of secrecy. I will make the role of mayor accountable, open and transparent.

"I will open up the books and work with the government and order a proper National Audit Office investigation into Teesworks.

"In short I will be a mayor you can trust."

As well as the free car parking, Mr McEwan also said he would introduce a cap on bus fares for young people going to work or school, help local people to get well-paid jobs at every stage of their life and invest in CCTV to make streets safer.

In response to the launch, Lord Houchen launched a fresh attack on his Labour opponent, highlighting the role he played in plans to close Teesside Airport in 2015.

At the time, the Labour-run Darlington Council - when Mr McEwan was Cabinet Member for Economy and Regeneration - was in favour of selling the land at the airport, which was owned by Peel at the time.

The plan would have seen 350 homes built at the airport, with suggestions it would eventually close in 2021. But the airport returned to public ownership in 2019 following Lord Houchen's election victory two years earlier. 

Lord Houchen said: “I am astounded that the Labour Party have selected the actual man responsible for supporting Peel and proposing to build 350 houses on the airport. An act of vandalism that would have meant the end of Teesside Airport altogether.

“This is a man who pushed on multiple occasions for 350 houses to be built on the airport. It was his proposal, his name on the paperwork and he was the one who convinced the Labour run Council to back his plans to let Peel destroy our airport with a major housing development.

"The man who supported Peel with their plan to destroy our airport, and who wants to build houses on it, wants us to trust him.

"He wants us to trust him that he'll get rid of parking charges, charges that he introduced to Darlington -as deputy leader of the council - just a few months ago, and he wants to introduce a £2 cap on bus fares, which already exists across the country.

"Labour are just not serious about helping the people of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool -  and what's clear is that he'd take us straight back to the bad old days of no investment, no jobs, no future for our region and no airport."

Responding to Lord Houchen's claims, Mr McEwan said he supported the airport and the 10-year rescue plan currently in place. 

He said: "My position, which I have had for about four years, is everybody wants an airport.

"We have got a 10-year plan and I back that plan.

"We are five years in and I’d like to know (this fits with the openness and transparency issue) where we are with that plan both as a mayoral candidate and as deputy leader of the council.

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"How can I help an organisation if they are not open or transparent?

"I want to do what I can to help the airport. Any rhetoric or language around my views needs to be what is coming out of my mouth. I will support the airport."

There were protestors outside of the stadium with a banner saying 'Stop Peel's candidate' during today's campaign launch.

The Northern Echo: Protestors