One of the region's most successful sporting clubs, Durham County Cricket Club, is back in the black after a year in which it hosted its first ever Ashes Test.

But questions remain over the club's financial state and the backing it has received from Durham County Council. Special report by STUART ARNOLD

DURHAM County Cricket Club has revealed it returned a £1m operating profit last year - triggering a fresh debate over taxpayer funded loans.

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The club said last August's first ever England versus Australia Ashes Test at its Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground (ICG) in Chester-le-Street had provided a "much needed financial boost".

The test - which attracted 70,000 spectators over four days and saw England win the series outright - helped reverse successive losses of £1.7m in 2012 and £1.3m in 2011.

But its overall financial position worsened and the latest accounts for the year ending September 30 2013 show the net debts of Durham County Cricket Club Holdings Limited - the holding company - now stand at £4.8m, compared to £3.1m the previous year.

Last year just months before it was due to host its first Ashes test the club made an urgent appeal for £6m worth of public funding in order to "secure the long-term future of international cricket at Durham" - effectively meaning the match could take place.

Durham County Council responded by agreeing a £2.8m loan, which was then matched in turn by the North-East Local Economic Partnership (LEP).

Independent Weardale County Councillor John Shuttleworth said the cricket club had received "constant handouts" and questioned whether the county council - which recently approved £23m of budget cuts and voted to increase council tax by just under two per cent - would ever get its money back.

He said: "The council needs to get its priorities right and ask itself what is more important - closing care homes to save money, for example, or bankrolling a cricket club?

"It is impossible to imagine the council will get any of this money back. It's all about pomp and prestige and council taxpayers are having to pay."

County Councillor Stephen Robinson, who represents Benfieldside, near Consett, also as an independent, added: "The council is constantly whinging about having to make cuts and all the while they are chucking good money after bad with the cricket club.

"For all that the club has made a profit, they are still carrying a massive debt and they won't get the Ashes every year."

North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones said: "The cricket club has been important in terms of showcasing the region and there are wider economic benefits from things like the Ashes.

"But in terms of its financial support from public funds these arrangements must be kept under review."

Durham - which last year claimed a third County Championship title win in six years - saw match income rise massively as a result of the Ashes test from £1.1m in 2012 to £5.1m last year.

It has said the regional economy in the North-East benefitted to the tune of £20m from the historic clash - a figure produced by a company called Global Tourism Solutions (UK), which was commissioned by the club to estimate the economic impact.

The club has a commitment from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to stage further international games at the Emirates up until 2016.

The awarding of future international cricket matches beyond that, which would require approval from England and Wales Cricket Board, is said to be "critical" to its long term future.

Chief executive David Harker said it was unfair to suggest public money was effectively propping up the club.

He said: "We know we have to run a sustainable business and we are making adjustments to our cost base so the business doesn't leak cash year on year.

"The county council and the LEP are investing in a significant regional asset which delivers significant regional benefit."

County Councillor Neil Foster, Durham's County Council's cabinet member for economic regeneration, defended the council's financial backing for the club.

He said: "As the region's only venue for national and international cricket, the Emirates Durham is a key economic asset, not just for County Durham, but the wider North-East.

"The success of the Ashes Test gained fantastic exposure for our area on a national and international stage."

County Coun Foster said planned future one-day internationals involving Sri Lanka and New Zealand and a Test Match against Sri Lanka would bring an estimated £14m to the region.