A PLANNING application to replace the demolished shops on Durham Lane, Eaglescliffe, is expected to be submitted by the end of February.

The move follows discussions between owners Mowden Park Estates and planners at Stockton Borough Council.

Eaglescliffe councillor Maureen Rigg welcomed the news and said the soul had been taken out of the community since the once-thriving Orchard shops were reduced to a charred, blackened shell.

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"There isn't the opportunity for social networking that happened as people went to the shops. This was particularly important for the elderly and those who live alone," she said. "They would walk up and down the little parade of shops and bump into their friends, and have a natter.

"We have lost that and that is more important to the community than any of the individual shops that made up the parade.

"It has also made it harder for some of the older and less mobile people who are having to go to Yarm and the centre of Stockton for things."

Coun Rigg said she had not yet seen details of the planning application, but had been told it would be similar to the shops that had burned down.

"Edward Yuill, managing director of Mowden Park, and his planning advisor, had a meeting with regeneration officers at Stockton and planning officers to discuss what exactly they were going to do, " she added.

"They have agreed to apply for permission for something which is more or less replacing what was there previously.

"The most important thing is that we get this parade of shops back and that the people who are at the moment not able to trade are able to get back into a shop and start trading again.

"I think we could see them being rebuilt by the end of the year, but that is just my guesswork on the timetable."

Edward Yuill, managing director of Mowden Park Estates, was contacted, but declined to comment.

Nearby Egglescliffe Community Centre escaped damage and Eaglescliffe Library suffered some very minor smoke damage. The Sainsburys Local shop at the end of the parade of shops reopened just a few days after the fire.

Around 60 firefighters tackled the blaze as it destroyed two takeaways, ahairdressers, pharmacy, tattoo parlour, launderette, bookmakers and a fish and chip shop.

The fire is believed to have started in Figaro's pizza shop, which was completely destroyed.

Fire crews said the blaze was understood to have been suspicious and police investigated at the time. The investigation is still open.