A CONTROVERSIAL scheme in which a council facing an £8m black hole due to coronavirus-related costs is spending about £30,000 a week providing free town centre car parking spaces looks set to be halted after Christmas.

The two-hour free parking regime being offered at Darlington Borough Council car parks was introduced last month in an attempt to attract more shoppers and help traders as they struggled to recover from the impact of coronavirus and lockdown.

The authority’s leadership, which has stressed it is doing whatever it can to help local businesses, has rejected the claims of the scheme’s critics, who have claimed the car parking scheme is only offering financial help to those who can afford cars and fails to support sustainable transport methods, such as cycling or buses.

The initiative is the latest in a series of such schemes run in recent years as the council has attempted to increase the number of town centre. Ahead of the latest scheme being launched, the authority’s Tory leadership faced claims that previous car parking initiatives had made little difference to town centre visitor numbers.

Following the launch of the latest scheme, the leader of the Green Party group on the council, Councillor Matthew Snedker, told a meeting of the authority’s corporate board the scheme needed to be viewed in light of the difficult situation the council now found itself in.

The council’s resources portfolio holder, Councillor Charles Johnson, revealed last month that the authority was putting claims in to government to recover as much of its coronavirus-related spending as possible, but added it “would be lucky to recover about £10m of the £18m we have had to spend”.

Cllr Snedker said while the majority of the council’s bleak financial position was outside its control due to necessary extra spending on coronavirus, it was continuing to spend about £400,000 every three months “subsidising people driving into the town”, through its free car parking initiative.

He said: “I would question whether the council can afford something that costs £1.6m a year when we are in such a perilous state.”

Councillor Charles Johnson replied that while the authority had continued the driving subsidy scheme until Christmas, that would not be continued on the basis the authority would be looking to save as much money as it could.