YORK’S Christmas build-up has been boosted through free parking and bus travel and an £18,500 cash injection.

The boost, designed to draw more visitors and shoppers to the city centre, was unveiled by City of York Council as the city began its festive celebrations with the switch-on of the St Helen’s Square Christmas tree lights last night.

For the first time, Park&Ride passengers travelling into York after 6pm on the four Thursdays leading up to Christmas will receive a free return ticket thanks to the council and bus operator First, and free parking will be available at all council-run car parks as well as on Boxing Day.

The council has also provided £18,500 to light up 21 city-centre streets, including Stonegate, which faced a lights black-out this Christmas before the authority stepped in. Lights have also been loaned from Blackpool Council, with a 200-metre array running between trees in Parliament Street and 200 icicle lights in St Helen’s Square.

Council leader James Alexander said: “We’re keen to ensure the city-centre economy has the best chance of attracting as many customers as possible over the festive season by offering these incentives to get people experiencing York's unique and vibrant offer.”

Frank Wood, York Retail Forum chair, described the council backing as “fantastic news for businesses at a vitally important time of year”.

“Free parking and our stunning range of shops prove York is the place to be for Christmas shopping," he said.

Meanwhile, the crowds braved near torrential rain for the switch on of Christmas lights in Coppergate and St Helen’s Square. Teachers and pupils of Tadcaster Grammar School took to the stage in Coppergate to perform their Children In Need internet hit, Tad Gram Style.

In front of the Mansion House, a performance of festive tunes by the Railway Institute Golden Rail Band kept everyone’s spirits up despite the rain, before Father Christmas and York Theatre Royal pantomime dame Berwick Kaler appeared for the big switch on.

The tree in St Helen’s Square was funded by St Leonard’s Hospice through its Light Up A Life campaign, with each light sponsored to raise funds and remember a loved one, while a charity collection was held for the Lord Mayor’s Christmas Cheer Fund and Cancer Research.

Coun Sonja Crisp, the council’s culture and tourism boss, said the event marked the start of a series of magical Christmas events in the city.