A ROW has broken out between the Labour and Conservative groups over car parking in Darlington.

The Conservatives recently called for free disc parking and car park "sale days" to entice shoppers to the town.

But Councillor Nick Wallis, the Labour cabinet member for highways and transport, said their plans were grossly irresponsible.

Coun Charles Johnson, the Conservative spokesman for resources scrutiny, responded by calling the council's policy devastating.

With the council likely to reject the Tesco development this month, boosting town centre trade will be a key issue in the borough elections in May. Coun Wallis said: "The Conservatives cannot pretend that introducing free car parking is an easy option for the town. In fact, it would cause enormous financial pain to council taxpayers, or to people who rely on council services.

The plan is grossly irresponsible."

The council raises £2.4m through parking each year, which Coun Wallis says is equivalent to an eight per cent council tax increase.

He said: "The only alternative to a council tax increase would be swingeing spending reductions. Also, free parking would make bus travel far less attractive. Congestion would become truly awful throughout the day.

"The council's approach to helping traders - for example, a free third hour in short-stay car parks - is the responsible way to approach the issue."

But Coun Johnson said budget choices needed to be made.

He said: "Coun Wallis needs to walk round the town and see the devastation his car parking policy has caused.

"People are not shopping here any more.

"There are a considerable number of enlightened councils that are already using free disc parking. I am at a loss to know why Darlington Borough Council have not looked at that. We all have to make budget choices.

"When they make a statement saying we raised £2.4m' you have to say, who has made the money? Where has it gone?

"The shopkeepers have not made the money. It is a rather odd statement to make.

"Over 50 per cent of people that come into Darlington do so by car. We have to make provision for the motor car, because that is how people want to travel. It is a fundamental fact."