THE North-East’s biggest council was accused of completely ignoring the views of its citizens as a major public inquiry opened today (Wednesday, October 1).

Durham County Council chiefs said they had been “always there to talk” about their economic masterplan the County Durham Plan and public engagement had influenced the Plan during its five-year production.

But at the opening of an examination in public today (Wednesday, October 1), the authority was repeatedly accused of failing to heed public opposition.

Julia Bowles, chairwoman of Sedgefield Village Residents’ Forum, said people were very disappointed and felt completely ignored – indeed the council had heard people’s views and moved in the opposite direction.

Sedgefield was being inundated with development, she said, with more than 1,000 new homes in the pipeline.

“When there’s consultation, people think it’s a done deal. People feel disenfranchised,” Mrs Bowles added, highlighting the controversial refurbishment of Durham Market Place and closure of council-run care homes.

Kirsty Thomas, for the Friends of Durham Green Belt, said there had been no real engagement from the council with her group’s alternative vision for “moderate growth” and Roger Cornwell, from the City of Durham Trust, said council consultation felt more like a reconnaissance exercise to see what the opposition was saying.

David Kinch, from Teesdale Action Partnership, said the Plan did not cover rural areas as much as urban.

Mike Allum, the council’s spatial policy manager, said there had been comprehensive engagement with more than 300 public events and feedback had resulted in policy changes including on new housing and houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

The verbal shots were fired across the Riverside Suite at Durham County Cricket Club in Chester-le-Street as planning inspector Harold Stephens opened an inquiry expected to last six weeks.

The Plan includes proposals for 31,400 new homes, 500 hectares of employment land and 9,500sq metres of retail space, aimed at creating 30,000 new jobs by 2030.

Councillor Neil Foster, the council’s cabinet member for economic regeneration, said the economy was the council’s top priority and getting more and better homes and attracting investment was crucial to the county’s economic future.

Ian Thompson, the council’s corporate director for economic regeneration, said a “difficult decision” had been taken to amend the green belt boundary.

The inquiry continues.