IT drives me mad when people say they have been entranced by the
view of Durham from their train carriage window but they’ve never
taken the time to walk its streets.

It’s true that you don’t need to set foot here to realise this is a city with a glorious past. But railway passengers who gaze at a skyline of a cathedral, castle, red brick terraces and pretty streets are only getting a tiny part of the story.

It’s always been an important place for me. Growing up in North West Durham meant it was the city we travelled to for culture, jobs, education and other less virtuous pursuits. It’s where I first went to nightclubs. Rixies wasn’t exactly the Hacienda, and Klute has featured in a poll of the worst nightclubs in Europe, but I have fond, if slightly fuzzy, memories of both.

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Durham is the place where I bought some of my first records – from Musicore at the bottom of North Road. If I’m trying to be cool I’d claim that they were all by The Smiths and New Order but I was also a big fan of ABBA and ELO, and if I’m being honest, I still am. 

It’s also where I ended up studying, at New College and the university. 

I have never thought of Durham as a place where you could find lots of private sector jobs, however. When I was at school in the 1980s the careers adviser told us that Durham was the place to be if you sought work in the public sector.

County Hall and the Passport Office are still among the city’s biggest employers. In that sense Durham’s economy with its continued dependence on local authority and government jobs is the North-East economy in microcosm. 

Durham is a tourist hotspot with an historic market. It’s a great place to trawl around some traditional boozers. It has one of the world’s great universities, and cobbled streets leading to historic treasures, but it
would be a mistake to think that this is a city frozen in time.

In recent years residents and regular visitors have become accustomed to seeing industrial cranes soar overhead and hearing the steady thrum from building activity from developments, including Freeman’s Reach, Milburngate House, and the Gates. 

Cultural events, such as Lumiere and the flourishing Miners’ Gala, are powerful reminders that this is a city capable of making its presence felt around the world.

It’s not all sweetness and light. Walk across the city and and you will find plenty of people sat on the pavement begging for money. North Road - the street which is the gateway for most people who walk into Durham from the railway station - looks very down at heel. It's a sharp sign for newcomers to the city that if the view from the train made you think you'd arrived at a scaled-down version of Oxford, Cambridge or York then you are very much mistaken. Durham suffers many of the economic problems which continue to blight much of our region: food poverty, unemployment, low wages, and an alamrming lack of opportunities for young people.    

The savagery of the Government’s austerity programme means that all councils have been forced to axe jobs and services. As the public sector shrinks one of the big questions facing County Durham is where will its children work 10 or 20 years from now? 

There is a growing risk of a brain drain that forces the brightest minds to move away to secure decent salaries. It’s a bit of Catch 22 scenario – local people don’t stay because there aren’t enough good jobs to go around and firms don’t move here because the most employable people have shifted elsewhere. 

There have been some recent examples, such as Atom Bank and investments on the Netpark site at Sedgefield, which buck the trend but we need to create more good jobs as well as a sustainable plan to help bring them here.

Proposals for a business quarter centred around Aykley Heads may alarm readers who would prefer Durham stays as it is or turn back the clock. I respect anyone who fights to protect the city’s unique character
and heritage but proposals that could see County Hall become the site for a vibrant business hub, and a new history centre to host the county archive and help tell the story of the region, sound like steps in the right direction.

If Durham doesn’t move with the times then it will ossify and that would be disastrous not just for the city but for the towns and villages which surround it. 

The proposal to attract up to 6,000 new private sector jobs is bold, visionary and exciting. At the moment it consists of plans backed
by some detailed, independent research. There is a long way to go but Durham’s winning mix of transport links, an attractive setting and top university suggest it has a better chance of success than the ‘build
it and they will come’ approach you see at some business parks.

The city could become one of the North’s key centres of employment. If it all goes to plan then in a few years from now those train travellers who’ve hitherto declined to alight at Durham might be compelled to get off and see what all the fuss is about.