INDEPENDENT retailers have called for more to be done to help business thrive in Darlington town centre.

Business owners were asked to give their views on how Darlington Borough Council can improve the town at an event earlier this week.

The Town Centre Conference heard concerns relating to a lack of free parking in the town, and proposals for a more specialised, “high quality” market.

Retailers also urged the council to make the town more attractive to tourists by providing signs which clearly directed them to the most attractive areas.

Figures from the Local Data Company show 90 of 508 retail units in Darlington are currently vacant, which equates to a rate of 17.7 per cent.

That figure is only 0.7 per cent above the rate it was three years ago, but more than five per cent above the national average.

One business owner claimed shoppers were now deserting Darlington as a result of the lack of free parking.

He said: “I have shops in both Darlington and Bishop Auckland, and people have told me they travel from Darlington to our Bishop shop simply because they know they can park for free.

“There needs to be some element of free parking so people who want to visit the town for a short period are encouraged to do so”

However, one trader believed this would have a detrimental effect on business, saying people should be “encouraged” to spend a full day in the town.

“The parking system as it is encourages people to spend longer in the town, so they would do some shopping, have some food, and therefore benefit many more businesses.

Speaking about the appearance of the town, Ann Coxon of fashion retailer Leggs, based on Skinnergate, said:“There is nothing in the town that attracts people to the independents.

“We see people all the time that are having a weekend in Darlington – there is potential to really grow that if they know where to go.”

Cllr Chris McEwan, cabinet member for economy and regeneration said: “We received a lot of great feedback and suggestions and we hope to continue to work with businesses to create an ambitious plan for the town in the coming years.

“The Town Centre Board will consider how to respond to the opportunities and issues that have been raised and I would urge more businesses to get involved in that process.”