THE timing of a fresh drive to rejuvenate a town centre has been condemned, despite the council behind it arguing austerity had limited its ability to arrest high street decline.

Campaigners and the leader of the Conservative group on Darlington Borough Council said the Labour-run authority now needed to act urgently to address the continuing drop-off of visitors to the town centre.

The council’s leadership has stated measures to boost town centre visitors, such as two hours’ free parking in its long stay car parks, had previously been impossible due to cutbacks.

When the car parking plans were unveiled last month the authority’s local environment boss, Councillor Nick Wallis said his colleagues 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.”

Its leading members said following the recent planned closures of House of Fraser’s Binns department store and Marks & Spencer, it would launch a fresh town centre masterplan to respond to the “seismic changes”.

Tory councillor Heather Scott said the masterplan move was “a very late acknowledgement of the problem facing Darlington town centre”.

She said: “The labour council blame everyone else for the situation and have done nothing to encourage people to come into Darlington.

“A negative attitude to car drivers, parking charges and not listening to traders who have for a considerable time warned of the loss of footfall.”

Cllr Scott said the Conservative group had consistently raised issues such as parking, the use of the market square and neglect to the indoor market building.

She said: “We will press for swift action to respond to the impending closure of House of Fraser and the future use of the building for a mixture of retail, leisure and residential if a satisfactory negotiation with the parent company is not achieved.

“It is not the time for more consultation it is time for action.”

Cllr Scott’s comments come as campaign group I’m Backing Darlington said the Labour administration was adopting “token solutions” and was presiding over a “policy vacuum”.

The group said before the M&S and Binns closure there already were 85 empty units in the town.

After a recent meeting organised by the group, which was attended by about 100 people, its chairman Graham Robb has challenged the council to respond to a range of ideas to boost the town centre.

These including introducing two hours’ free parking throughout the town, a reduction in the size of the town centre, moving the outdoor market to the Market Square and allowing parking in the Market Square and increase parking spaces on Skinnergate.