A council decision on whether to reinstate free parking after 2pm across several County Durham car parks is due later this year. 

The controversial new measures by Durham County Council mean visitors to some town and city centres as well as coastal car parks in the region will now need to pay during their visit. 

New signs and parking meters were installed last week ahead of the changes, which came into force on Monday (April 1). 

The local authority’s cabinet accepted a motion in January to reconsider the decision to end free parking after 2pm. The vote was unanimously backed by cross-party councillors following concerns from political representatives and residents. 

Concerns have been raised that the charges could impact town centre trade, particularly in Chester-le-Street, as shoppers could favour other facilities outside the region. A council meeting in January heard how residents are ‘extremely confused’ as to why the charges have been reintroduced in Chester-le-Street but not other towns. Parking in some areas of Stanley and Consett is free. 

Independent councillor Paul Sexton, who covers Chester-le-Street, told the January meeting: “Businesses are telling us they're still trying to recover from the impact of the pandemic, let alone the current cost-of-living crisis. 

“Councils across the country appear to be doing as much as they can to support their towns and villages, whereas Durham County Council appear to want to pinch the pockets of hard up residents, at a cost to the hardworking shopkeepers and to the detriment of our town centres.”

New charges at coastal car parkings in Seaham and Crimdon were also labelled a “tax on leisure” by local Labour representatives. Charges have also been introduced in Durham City. 

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The free parking scheme was initially introduced to encourage visitors to use town centres and local businesses following the pandemic. Charges were reintroduced on Monday (April 1), as part of plans to raise more money for the local authority. 

At a full council meeting last week, Cllr Sexton pressed the council for an answer on when it is likely to deliver its final ruling. 

Cllr Elizabeth Scott, cabinet member for economy, said the process is ongoing and will be reconsidered by cabinet at a later date. The Liberal Democrat member added: “It’s a financial decision; it has to go through the proper process. It will be when we can get it through scrutiny. So, it will be a matter of months not weeks, unfortunately.”