A £120,000-a-year scheme to boost a town centre which has been hit by increasing online shopping has been adopted at the earliest opportunity, a council has insisted.

Ahead of Darlington Borough Council's Cabinet approving two hours' free parking in seven car parks to the the town centre's east and south, the authority's local environment boss, Councillor Nick Wallis, defended the authority against claims it was doing too little too late.

Details of the scheme were unveiled last week amid continuing concerns about empty town centre premises and flagship store Marks and Spencer announcing it would close its North Road store.

The authority's Conservative leader, Councillor Heather Scott, told the meeting, while "everybody welcomes this sudden u-turn on free car parking", she had been left perplexed why the Labour-run council's plan had taken so long to emerge.

She said: "I just wondered what happened over the past two months. About two months ago the Place Scrutiny Committee was told we couldn't afford to do anything on free car parking. The budget had by then already been approved. I wondered if it is a case of some people in this local authority... the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing."

Cllr Wallis admitted questions had been raised following the plan, which will also see all-day parking for £2 at East Street multi-storey car park, being unveiled about why the authority had not taken action sooner.

He added councillors had received "clearly articulated" messages in their wards that promoting and enhancing the town centre was a priority for residents. 

Cllr Wallis said: "We are a local authority that continually listens to what people have to say and respond accordingly when we are able to do so. And financially we are now able to do so. 

"Anyone who has been paying any attention to local authority budgets, and our budget in particular, since 2010 will know how we have been buffeted by the Government's austerity agenda where there was some doubt at one point whether this local authority was sustainable at all.

"When three-quarters of our budget is going on adult and children's social care, there is so little left for all other areas of the council's work.

"We simply have not been in a financial position to do what we had always done previously which is promote and enhance our town centre.

"As a result of those difficult decisions we took through the medium term financial plan after 2015 and as a result of the savings and investments that have been made we have the Futures Fund, we have the £4m over the next five years to re-invest in services around the town and clearly making sure we have a sustainable and popular town centre has to be towards the top of the agenda."

He said "a revolution in retail" had become starkly apparent over the last two years and that retailers were fighting "inexorable international forces".

He added it was hoped by forgoing charges on the 643 car parking spaces it would give the town centre retailers time to regroup "during what is a particularly tumultuous time to be selling things on the high street".

Cllr Scott said the authority now also needed to re-examine car parking in the town centre itself.

She said: "If we are serious about the development of the indoor market we do need to look at the short-stay parking around it. If people cannot park it will affect the business of those traders."

Cllr Wallis said he would be happy to review the short-stay parking near the market and that while he believed the town centre would look very different in 15 years time, its future was at less risk than the "soul-less sheds" which make up out of town retail parks.

Councillor Chris McEwan, the council's economy and regeneration boss, added residents had to be aware the time had come to use the town centre or lose it.