AS OTHER councils tighten their belts, one North East council is set to risk hundreds of thousands of pounds by offering free town centre parking.

Plans to introduce two hours of free parking in all council operated car parks and some residential streets could cost Middlesbrough Council more than £300,000 in lost revenue during its first six months.

The council has already lost around £500,000 in car parking revenue as a result of the economic downturn.

However, with custom to the town “haemorrhaging” according to a council report, the town’s mayor says the plans are a risk worth taking.

It is hoped that the free parking will boost the local economy by encouraging trade and attracting more visitors to the town centre.

Other councils in the area showed no sign of following in the footsteps of Middlesbrough. 

Redcar and Cleveland Councillor Steven Goldswain said the council was about to review car parking across the borough but added that he believed Pay and Display to be effective. 

A spokesman for Stockton Borough Council said experiences with free parking in Yarm had proved “difficult to manage” while the leader of Darlington council, Bill Dixon, said free parking was not something he would rush into without looking into it carefully.

However, Middlesbrough's mayor Ray Mallon said: “The economy of this town is vital and we must do everything we can to assist its businesses.  This council will lose £74m between 2011 and 2016 as a result of goverment cuts.  Another £300,000 loss will make our situation more difficult but I cannot see any other alternative.

“According to the public, the biggest barrier stopping them from attending the town centre is car parking charges. The only risk the council can take now is not taking a risk at all. We live in a risky environment. By giving free parking we are proving that we really are doing everything possible to enhance the economy.”

The move has largely been welcomed by local businesses. Julia Wright, the manageress of Laura Day Bridal on Linthorpe Road, said: “The first thing customers ask us is if there is somewhere free to park. Charges put off shoppers and add to your shopping bill. This will encourage more people to come into the town and will definitely improve business.”

A council meeting will be held on Tuesday February 12 to decide whether to implement the proposals which would mean free parking for the first two hours in all council car parks and in the town’s ‘Jewel’ streets (Amber Street, Ruby Street, Emerald Street, Pearl Street, Garnet Street and Diamond Road) for a trial period of six to nine months. The council will also offer £20 monthly permits for its Zetland and Station Street car parks.

The plans have attracted mixed reactions from councils, business owners and key figures across the region – more inside.

More Middlesbrough Council News