TEN years ago the old district councils in County Durham were swept away to be replaced with a brand new “super authority”.

Durham County Council was created as a unitary authority on April 1, 2009 with promises of improving services and giving the county a louder voice.

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Cllr Simon Henig - leader of Durham County Council

In its first decade – which has also seen nine years of austerity, which have meant vast changes for local democracy across the country – have those ambitions been realised?

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Business and council leaders at Durham County Council's Powered by People campaign launch, aimed at attracting more inward investment

During an interview ahead of the anniversary, councillor Simon Henig, who has been leader of the authority since its creation, and chief executive Terry Collins, reel of a list of things they’re clearly proud of, from the work of area action partnerships to new business parks and a growing programme of cultural events.

But as he admits, County Durham's economy is still well behind other parts of the country, with median gross weekly household earnings for full-time employees £68 below the national average – a gap which is widening.

This gap, says Cllr Henig, is the reason the council's first priority has been to make the county "all together wealthier", and the reason for the focus on regeneration and the council's pursuit of investment.

“In the first interview I did I said the reason for doing this is because County Durham is one of the third poorest parts of the country," said cllr Henig.

“In the previous ten years Durham had not advanced at all, and if anything had gone slightly back, even though those were years of positive economic growth elsewhere.

“That was partly because the shock of the 80s and 90s was so great.

“It wasn’t a coincidence we chose the economy as a priority. The GVA was 60 per cent of the national average, young people were leaving to get jobs, we had huge commuter outflows.”

Despite investment – there is currently more than £3.8 billion in private sector investment underway across County Durham – that GVA figure has remained about the 60 per cent mark.

In January, the council reported Durham’s GVA being £10,814 below the national average and £2,718 below that of the region.

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The Hitachi factory in Newton Aycliffe

“It’s taken a number of years,” said cllr Henig. “We bid for Hitachi (which has a factory in Newton Aycliffe) in 2009. We weren’t even on the long list and we forced our way on and came through 40 other sites to get it. Now they’re making trains that will be used on the East Coast Main Line.

“The time line on that has been ten years. I think what that shows is planning has to be long term, Things don’t happen overnight.

“A lot of things are starting to happen at Milburngate (in Durham), Integra 61 (near Bowburn), Jade (near Murton).

“We’re starting to see all these things happening. It’s not a coincidence – it’s years of planning.”

He added: “Because of public sector austerity, investment is going to come from the private sector. We have to have that. At a time of public sector austerity, that’s the only way we are going to get the jobs we need.

“I think it was the right priority to have and still is the right priority. It’s even more important now than 10 years ago, which is why we are re-doubling our efforts. We know it’s having an impact.

"Our status quo is not an option. Some people disagree with me but if you agree, then we have to make challenging decisions because making changes is difficult."

In 2009, promises were made that services would not just be maintained, but improved.

Since then, cuts totalling £224m have been made because of reduced funding from the Government, resulting in lost or reduced services, buildings being closed and rising council tax, which has increased by about 20 per cent in the last decade.

Places like Chester-le-Street and Consett lost their civic buildings while the tourist information office in Durham closed, as did the city’s museum dedicated to the Durham Light Infantry (DLI).

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The DLI Museum, in Durham, which closed in 2016

Care homes and children’s centre, opening hours at libraries, bus subsidies and school transport have all been victims of reducing local government funding.

Cllr Henig acknowledges that “difficult decisions” have been made. When asked about the most difficult, he said: “I don’t want to pick one thing.

“The truthful answer is there have been a lot of difficult decisions, which I’ve not shied away from.

“When I became a councillor in 1999 we used to look at the budget a few weeks before it was approved.

“Now, we’re doing it all year round. Why? Because it’s so difficult.

“We are very aware that every decision has a potential impact on people and those are not easy decisions to take, whether it’s a rise in council tax or increasing garden waste charges.”

He added: “People appreciate what’s in their community but County Durham has so many communities it’s very difficult to look at any service. If you’re in a big city it’s a bit easier because you can centralise things but we can’t do that because Durham City isn’t a natural centre for a lot of the County Durham population.”

Mr Collins said: “Every council has found austerity really hard. We are no different to that. We’ve seen demand increase and budgets decrease.

“We’ve had to be creative."

He added: “People don’t come into the council to make those savings.

“Every time those decisions are made, the alternatives have always been worse.

“We always try to think about the priorities of the public.

“It’s incredibly difficult and it gets more and more difficult as austerity goes on.”

Would austerity have been different if the district councils had still existed?

Yes, says cllr Henig. He added: “I would argue because we are that size, it has allowed us to withstand austerity more robustly than other councils elsewhere. Because of the economies of scale, we have been able to maintain services that smaller councils have not been able to.”

He added: "I think as the largest authority in the North-East that’s the reason some of the things like getting Hitachi and Lumiere have happened.

“These things have happened because of the scale of the council. The amount of support for Lumiere is so great you couldn’t do it as a smaller council.”

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Lumiere, one of the highlights of Durham's cultural programme, takes place for the sixth time this November

Later this year Lumiere will be staged in Durham City for the sixth time, one of final events in the council’s self-designated “year of culture”, which also includes events around the cricket world cup, which will see matches played in Chester-le-Street, Durham’s new three-day running festival, a new food festival in Seaham and the opening of the Auckland Project's Spanish Gallery and Faith Gallery in Bishop Auckland.

Why, in times of austerity, the focus on art and culture?

“The visitor economy is the fifth largest sector of the economy,” said Mr Collins. “It creates job, but it also gives people a sense of pride.

“Our programme is the equivalent of any major cities like Sheffield and Manchester. That’s the level Durham is playing at. It’s stronger than other council’s around us.”

In 2009, concerns were voiced that Durham County Council, representing about million people, would be too big, while removing the district councils in Durham, Easington, Sedgefield, Teesdale, Wear Valley, Derwentside and Chester-le-Street would make decision making too remote from people.

Part of the reorganisation included the creation of 14 area action partnerships (AAPs), which are aimed at giving communities their own budgets to make improvements and support local projects.

With a combined annual budget of just over £2m – giving each one a pot of £145,000 each year – the AAPs have supported about 6,000 projects over the last 10 years.

"Tens of thousands of people have been involved," said Cllr Henig. "I think by and large it's been a positive experience for a lot of people.

"It’s not all about Simon Henig making a decision. It’s about how can we enable people across the county to make a difference and have an impact on local communities. I think we have seen that through the AAPs and a large number of people have been able to do that.