An initiative that offered two hours of free parking in Darlington town centre has been scrapped due to “overspending” - prompting the town's Conservative MP Peter Gibson to swiftly launch a petition to save the scheme.

Labour Leader of Darlington Council Steve Harker has today (Thursday, June 8) announced that car parking charges for all council-run short and long stay car parks will be re-introduced from Monday, July 3.

Cllr Harker blamed the divisive decision on funding, claiming there was “no provision” put in place to continue the offer in the council’s budget that was approved earlier this year.

But the Tories say the decision is "entirely within the hands of Darlington Council’s new Labour group", adding they "fear for our fragile town centre businesses".

The council leader said: “I realise people will be disappointed at the end of the two-hour offer. However, the funding from the Tees Valley Combined Authority has ended, and the cost has not been budgeted for in the financial plan, which was approved earlier in the year by the previous administration.

“With the funding from the Tees Valley Combined Authority ending, parking charges have also been reintroduced elsewhere in the Tees Valley.”

He added: “To continue the free parking offer would cost the council up to an additional £1.7m per year in lost revenue.

"This is not accounted for in the council’s budget. The medium term Financial Plan (MTFP), set by the previous administration, includes overspending by £7.5m, on average, for the next four years.

"Continuing free parking would add to this overspending, and we would need to review the MTFP and reduce spending in other areas to make up the difference.”

On hearing the announcement, Darlington MP Peter Gibson immediately launched an online petition to keep the initiative going, blaming the “dreadful” decision upon the now Labour controlled council.

He said: “I am devastated to learn that Darlington Borough Council will reintroduce car parking charges in the town centre car parks. This is a decision entirely within the hands of Darlington Council’s new Labour group.

“I fear for our fragile town centre businesses building back post pandemic and I fear for those in our community who benefited from this small help with their cost of living.

“I’ve launched a petition to make sure my constituents voices heard loud and clear, that this is a dreadful decision.”

Fellow Conservative and leader of the opposition on Darlington’s council, Jonathan Dulston, has also criticised the move, stating Labour’s decision is “short-sighted”.

He said: “Having spoke to residents, local businesses, and its visitors it’s clear that this initiative has been a key driver in people coming into Darlington town centre and choosing to shop local.

“Re-introducing car parking charges is the easiest thing for the Labour Council to do and shows a sheer lack of innovation.”

He added: “The Conservatives believe the council has lots of opportunities to maximise more lucrative and commercial opportunities that generate income for the local authority.”

This decision comes after similar charges were re-introduced elsewhere in the Tees Valley in March of this year - including in Stockton and Middlesbrough - as a two-year funding plan from the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) came to an end.

The charges were initially dropped during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021 to encourage shoppers to journey back into town centres and boost local businesses as restrictions slowly lifted.

Darlington council said drivers could still find "good value parking" in the town centre – with offers ranging from 50p per half hour in some main shopping streets to £2 for all day parking in East Street car park.