TRADERS were last night left counting the cost after contractors cut through a power cable, wrecking Christmas shopping trips across the region.

About 20,000 people were affected by the power failure yesterday afternoon, caused when contractors accidentally sliced through a 132,000 volt underground cable.

Parts of Stockton, Yarm, Darlington, Northallerton and Richmond were cut off.

Darlington was the worst hit after the cable was damaged by the unnamed contractors in the town's Haughton Road.

The power went off at 12.15pm, and some customers were not reconnected until 4.50pm.

Business leaders said the power cut had dealt a "body blow" to Christmas trading in Darlington.

Almost every shop and business in the town centre lost power and although many tried to stay open by using candlelight, many more had to admit defeat and close.

Christmas shoppers were forced to leave the stores and although some waited for a while, hoping that the power would come back to come back, many decided to go home.

The town centre car parks, normally all full at this time of year, were emptying rapidly by 2pm.

The effect on businesses in Darlington is expected to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Albion Small, president of the Darlington Chamber of Trade and manager of the Cornmill Shopping Centre, said the power cut could not have come at a worse time.

"We were expecting 25,000 people to come into the centre, but would have been lucky to get 10,000," he said.

"It has had a phenomenal affect on trade and the concern is that people may have gone to other towns and may well not return to shop in Darlington again."

Pat McDonogh, manager of Woolworths in Darlington, said they did not have their power restored until 3.15pm.

"It happened during the busiest time of the day and had an obvious effect on the store," he said.