ANALYSTS confidently expect it to inject £400m into County Durham’s economy over 20 years – so it's no wonder business leaders and politicians are describing the forthcoming development of Aykley Heads as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was too good to miss.

Comprising 718,000sq.ft of office space and 77,000sq.ft of amenities, it is destined to transform the fortunes of Durham City and, together with other key development sites, have a positive knock-on effect on the whole county.

Independent research shows that half of all businesses looking to locate in the North-East would consider Durham, but, as things stand, there is insufficient premises for business growth. That is about to change with this latest phase of an economic vision that began to take shape 18 years ago when NETPark was opened, near Sedgefield, as a groundbreaking hub for science technology.

James Ramsbotham is particularly well placed to evaluate the benefits of what is about to happen. As chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, serving the interests of 3,000 businesses, it is his job to have his finger on the economic pulse of this part of the world. He firmly believes that Aykley Heads – as a 56-hectare central business quarter in Durham City – will complement NETPark and other emerging sites perfectly.

“It is extremely exciting and, when all the ingredients are put together, we are talking about an historic moment for the North-East,” says Mr Ramsbotham, who spent 14 years with Barclays Bank before becoming vice chairman of the award-winning Esh Group then taking the helm at the Chamber.

The NECC has been located on the existing Aykley Heads site for 30 years, so Mr Ramsbotham is well aware of the outstanding commercial benefits of its location.

“Look what we already have – a main line railway, easy access to the A1, a world-class university on our doorstep, we’re equidistant between Tyneside and Teesside, and we look out on a World Heritage Site,” he says. “Now we're about to build on that foundation with high-quality office space and exceptional business facilities that will make Durham an irresistible place to do business.”

Mr Ramsbotham goes as far as to say that the combination of Aykley Heads, NETPark and other key business developments will start to give Durham the kind of ambience associated with Cambridge.

One key business eager to grasp the opportunity presented by Aykley Heads is business and IT consultants, Waterstons, which currently has 130 of its 160 UK employees based on a split site at Belmont Business Park.

With Waterstons expanding – 30 new staff have been recruited over the past year – Aykley Heads gave the company the flexibility of bring all its staff into one building and in doing so enabling it to cement its long-term future in Durham.

“We are a company with roots in Durham, we want to stay here and Aykley Heads means we can now do that with confidence,” says Waterstons' chief executive, Susan Bell.

Waterstons plans to relocate from January.

Ms Bell is excited about the development not just from her own company’s perspective, but for the county as a whole.

“To have the potential to expand again when we need to is important and to be in a beautiful and prestigious area, within walking distance of the railway station and city centre, gives us so many more options around travelling and social time. In a wider context, to be creating such a vibrant, high-tech business quarter is great news for the city and the county.”

Durham County Council has approved initial funding of £11m to start creating new offices on the site as Phase 1 of a project that will see the closure of the 1960s County Hall. The county council plans to relocate to a smaller, more efficient site – currently a council-owned car park – alongside other public sector employers including HM Passport Office. Many council staff have already transferred from County Hall to other existing refurbished offices in Crook, Spennymoor, Seaham and Meadowfield.

Freeing up the County Hall site also enables the authority to establish a new Durham History Centre which will house County Durham’s archives and records, transforming the maintenance of the area’s rich heritage.

While that will greatly enhance public access to Durham’s proud and fascinating history, the council’s relocation will also be the catalyst for a dynamic future, with the Aykley Heads development expected to create 6,000 high-quality private sector jobs in sectors such as banking, finance, legal services and technology.

Durham County Council leader, Councillor Simon Henig, unequivocally describes it as 'an opportunity we simply couldn’t afford to turn down'.

“We wouldn’t be leaving County Hall unless it was the key to unlocking this opportunity to create thousands of jobs and transform the fortunes of the area,” he says. “We’ve never fully recovered from the loss of some of our staple industries and, as a county, we would never forgive ourselves if we let this go because it has fantastic potential for Durham City, County Durham and the wider North-East.”

The northern part of the site already hosts 40 businesses employing 1,300 staff – including Atom Bank and the NECC, while the Salvus House office complex and business incubator is also thriving.

For all the good work that’s going on, Durham still lags behind other parts of the country in terms of business investment and job creation, but Councillor Henig believes Aykley Heads can play a crucial role in bridging the gap.

“Durham City hasn’t historically been blessed with a huge amount of good-quality office accommodation, so this development really opens up fantastic new prospects. This will be one of the most attractive business locations not just in the North but the entire country,” says Councillor Henig.

The council leader also points to the impact the development will have on the city centre. The closure of County Hall alone will mean hundreds of county council employees moving closer to the centre, and every new business locating at the site will have a positive knock-on effect for retailers.

Councillor Henig is, however, also keen to stress that Aykley Heads is only one of the economic building blocks being put in place. Inward investment and development is already making an impact on communities across the county, including:

• Seaham – with the creation of the £20m Jade Enterprise Zone and the bringing forward of improvements to the A19 junction and energy infrastructure;

Peterlee/Horden – with a new £13m railway station unlocking further potential developments;

Bowburn – with the £115m development of Integra 61, including an industrial park, new housing, leisure and community facilities;

• Sedgefield – with further expansion of NETPark and £271m invested in the Centre for Innovation in Formulation, infrastructure for Phase 3 and the Explorer building;

Newton Aycliffe – where the Forrest Park project will see £153m expansion of the Aycliffe Business Park, with new road and energy infrastructure improvements already in place;

• Bishop Auckland – which has benefitted from more than £200m worth of investment, including Kynren and The Auckland Project;

Consett – where more than £100m was invested as part of Project Genesis, regenerating the former steelworks area with shops, housing, parks and offices, and creating hundreds of jobs;

Beamish – where the museum invested £17m on new attractions and facilities.

Put those building blocks together and Durham, as a county, has a foundation for a dynamic future that will have generational benefits.

Councillor Carl Marshall, the county council’s cabinet lead for economic development and regeneration, believes Aykley Heads – combined with the other development sites – represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a step-change in the county’s economy.

He argues that what is happening is all the more impressive in the context of the county council having had £224m cut from its budget by central Government since 2010.

“Any organisation that takes a 40 per cent hit on its budget has to cut its cloth, but, because of the way we’ve managed our finances in Durham, we are more stable than many other authorities,” he explains.

“This is about being able to generate income ourselves through additional business rates and rent income then to use it to grow our services rather than reduce them. It means we can begin to take charge of our own destiny.”

For Durham County Council chief executive, Terry Collins, that destiny must include creating the conditions in which young talent can be retained in the county rather than feel compelled to go to London in search of good jobs.

“We have to stop people leaving the area,” says Mr Collins. “If we don’t create opportunities, we not only lose our children, but our children’s children.”

Working closely with Durham University is an important part of raising the bar so graduates have high-value, highly skilled career opportunities that have a knock-on effect on the supply chain.

“I honestly think that in years to come we will look back at this as a momentous time in Durham’s history. It is that important – a real game-changer,” says Mr Collins.

The winners stand to reap the rewards for generations to come.