An annual scheme to support businesses during the Christmas period has returned this month.

Durham County Council has brought back its ‘Free after 3’ parking offer which will see free parking available in all council-owned car parks and on-street Pay and Display after 3pm, every day in December.

As well as ‘Free after 3’, on Saturday 5 December free parking will be available in all council off-street car parks and on-street spaces across the county after 10am to coincide with Small Business Saturday, a national campaign that encourages people to shop local and support small businesses in their communities.

These parking offers are the latest move to support small shops and businesses following the millions already paid out through business support grants.

As the county has moved into Tier 3 restrictions, essential and non-essential retailers are allowed to open and the council wants to support businesses in the run-up to Christmas, particularly those who have been significantly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Visitors can return to retail areas and town centres but are reminded to continue to social distance, wear face coverings indoors in public spaces, and follow the current guidance to keep themselves and others safe while shopping.

The council is also asking drivers to plan ahead for their journey and consider using car parks on the periphery of an area they intend to visit to allow for social distancing and support healthier travel by walking further where possible into retail centres.

Many retailers are offering online services such as click and collect or delivery. A directory of local businesses can be found through Visit County Durham’s website, www.thisisdurham.com/support-durhams-local-businesses.

Small businesses in need of financial assistance can apply for the business support grants which are available through the government support packages. More details can be found online at www.durham.gov.uk/covid19business

Cllr Carl Marshall, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economic regeneration, said: “The ‘Free after 3’ scheme supports local shops and businesses who rely on the increased footfall for a prosperous festive period, and it is particularly important this year following the impact most businesses have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is important that we are able to maintain a steady turnover of available parking spaces in all of our towns and the city to ensure they run effectively, and this is achieved by charging for parking during the day.

“However, by offering free parking after 3pm, people can do their shopping during quieter hours ensuring local businesses do not miss out on the benefits of increased footfall through to the end of the year. Our free parking offer from 10am on 5 December also encourages people to shop local and support our small businesses at this time.”

Drivers are advised that payment machines will not be switched off at times when charges are not in place and that money paid will not be refunded.

Those who are planning a Christmas shopping trip when shops reopen are reminded to keep space between themselves and others, wash their hands, wear a face covering and follow safety advice inside and outside shops. Help keep everyone safe #HandsFaceSpace.

Details of all council car parks can be found at www.durham.gov.uk/parking