A SENIOR councillor has said he is “quietly confident” that a bid for World Heritage Site status for Darlington’s 1825 railway will be successful.
Gaining the high profile status, which would put Darlington on par with Stonehenge and Durham Cathedral, is a key plank of a rescue plan for the town’s Head of Steam museum, which tells the story of the first passenger railway line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
As revealed by The Northern Echo, plans to cut the £265,000 annual subsidy Darlington Borough Council pays to keep the North Road museum open from 2015/16 look set to be shelved by councillors next week.
Instead, plans for a ‘heritage campus’ at the museum and surrounding buildings, many of which date back to the 1825 railway, have been revealed with the aim of bringing private businesses and tourists to the town.
The bid for World Heritage Site status, recognising Darlington’s role at the forefront of the railways and the Industrial Revolution, would provide a major boost to the plans to create a tourist economy.
Councillor Nick Wallis, cabinet member for leisure and local environment, said the council had been unable to find an economic strategy for the museum that could work without a subsidy.
He admitted that the council had not made the most of Darlington’s heritage assets in the past, but rejected claims the authority had neglected those assets.
He said: “The fact is that we’ve not been able to find a model for the Head of Steam that keeps it open at nil cost.
“We don’t know where we will find the money from to keep it going - it will have to come from other budgets. But the heritage campus will attract investment and jobs and in the long term it is what is best for the town.
“We don’t claim to have all the answers or all the money to do this. We need private businesses to come forward with ideas.”
He added: “Has the council done a good job in preserving the heritage? I believe it has.
“Has the council always fully realised the potential of those assets? No, probably not but this is a fantastic opportunity.
“With the 200th anniversary coming in 2025 and the World Heritage Site status bid, those are two fantastic twin ambitions to put Darlington on the map.”
Asked about the bid for World Heritage Site status, he said: “I’m quietly confident. There is a lot of work to be done but all the pieces are there to create a compelling bid."
Coun Wallis also suggested that the council could reconsider the £4.95 adult entry fee for the museum as the facility competes with the National Railway Museum sites at York and Shildon, which are free to enter.
Ian Williams, director of economic growth at the council, said the ‘heritage campus’ would make use of unused buildings on the site of the Head of Steam and create a facility that people wanted to visit and return to.
He added: “We can’t look at the Head of Steam in isolation. We’ve had a lot of interest from private businesses, such as the brewery idea. The council will invest in the museum but we want the private sector to come forward and enrich the site.”