TO mark the tenth anniversary of Durham County Council as a unitary authority, we put a selection of readers’ questions to the leader and chief executive.

Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council.

With the uncertainty of Brexit, what will Durham County Council and its services look like at its 20th anniversary?

It’s genuinely difficult to predict what Durham County Council will look like in ten years’ time. We had a vision when we became a new unitary authority ten years ago, but couldn’t have predicted that within a few years we’d be hit by austerity and have to make the level of savings we’ve had to. I don’t believe austerity is over and it’s making it increasingly difficult for all councils to find the level of savings required. Being one of the largest authorities, following unitisation, has helped us to protect frontline services.

What I can say from our perspective is that going forward we will continue our focus on long term planning, and investing in both economic and cultural regeneration across the county. This approach will not only create much needed jobs in the county, at sites like the expanded NETPark and the new Jade, Forrest and Aykley Heads business parks, but ensure County Durham remains a vibrant place to live.

Several of our readers felt their communities, including Derwentside, east Durham, Weardale and Teesdale, had been “forgotten” – how would you address those concerns?

We need to remember that over the last decade the UK has suffered one of its largest economic shocks since the 1800s and that billions of pounds have now been unfairly removed from the North-East in austerity cuts. County Durham has lost more than £220m and the council is projected to lose almost 3,000 posts by 2020.

Of course we need to do our best to continue to provide services in all parts of the county despite this incredibly challenging context. That is why front line services continue to be delivered across all of our communities, whether in children’s services, environmental services, winter gritting, library provision or our Area Action Partnerships (AAPs.) Ten years ago we set up our 14 AAPs covering the whole county to give people a say in how money is spent in their community.

The Northern Echo:

Over the ten years we have allocated more than £42m to our AAPs which have in turn levered £55.5m of additional funding into the county. This funding has allowed the partnerships to deliver in excess of 6,000 community projects across County Durham. Thousands of local people who are involved in AAPs also help set our priorities and shape services.

We know that due to the size of the county not everyone looks to Durham as its centre. Late last year our Cabinet agreed a new approach to regeneration which will ensure issues that affect people in towns and villages are tackled. We are committing £10m a year over the next three years in addition to £100m we are investing across the county through our capital programme, to local regeneration plans, the purchase of derelict buildings and land and environmental improvements.

There are also many examples of how we have continued to support our communities right across County Durham. These include new schools in Consett and Stanley, a new leisure centre in Consett, new library facilities in Newton Aycliffe, Seaham, Stanley and Barnard Castle, the new Horden rail station, our customer access points and our strategic office sites in Seaham, Spennymoor, Meadowfield and Crook, all of which have more staff working in them, increasing footfall into our towns.

Are you going to build more social housing?

We believe it’s very important to have a range of housing to meet our residents’ needs. For many years a government cap on borrowing for the building of social housing has had the effect of severely limiting councils’ ability to build new homes.

We have now started building our own housing through Chapter Homes, which has just sold its 100th property, and will look at delivering social properties through this venture in future.

Through the planning process, we work to ensure that the right kind of homes are built in the right places.

In January our Cabinet approved a new housing strategy which sets out our commitment to maximising the delivery of affordable homes, both by securing such properties in new housing developments and through the relationships we enjoy with social and affordable housing providers, and Homes England.

We are also committed to working to improve the condition of existing housing – including bringing empty property back into use. We are currently looking to expand our selective licensing scheme to regulate landlords and managing agents of private rented property.

If the government goes ahead with the proposed changes in how local councils are funded, can we have a ‘Durham crusade’? We’ll need one!

Since austerity began, we’ve had a 55 per cent reduction in funding from central government which amounts to some £224m. What’s more we are predicting savings of £39.5m over the next four years with changes to how councils are funded, threatening to leave us having to find cuts worth up to £19m in our public health budget alone.

However, I can assure residents that we are continually lobbying the government on the need for fairness in funding across the country, the threat to our public health budget as well as on cuts to the funding of our schools.

Ever since we became a new unitary authority ten years ago, we have maintained a clear focus on our economy and creating jobs in the county, which we are now seeing come to fruition.

We were the first local authority in the North-East to launch its own place branding – “This is Durham Place of Light” – after the abolition of our regional development agency One North East. Together with our growing cultural programme we are raising the profile of the county not just regionally and nationally, but internationally. Together with businesses in the county we’ve also developed the Powered by People inward investment initiative to enable us to promote the county’s greatest asset, its people.

This really is a great place to live and work and we want businesses and residents to join us in shouting about it.

Terry Collins, Chief Executive of Durham County Council

Is the council still confident its plans to relocate its offices to the Sands car park is the right move when it attracted so much opposition locally?

The decision to move our headquarters was made to free up the Aykley Heads site so it can be developed into one of the largest office developments in the region, bringing in up to 6,000 new jobs to the county as well as a £400m economic boost.

A new smaller headquarters at the Sands car park will reduce our running costs and provide an all-year-round economic boost to the city centre. It will also enable us to move more than 800 staff out of County Hall to sites in Crook, Spennymoor, Seaham and Meadowfield, increasing footfall to our towns to the benefit of local businesses.

The Northern Echo:

High streets up and down the country are really struggling but by placing the headquarters in the heart of Durham City, next door to other key sites such as the Passport Office, National Savings and Investments and the Milburngate and Riverwalk schemes, we are providing confidence in the economy and acting as a catalyst for other investment.

We are committed to working with the private sector to attract investment and jobs. In all we have attracted £3.4bn of investment into the county with existing and new sites like Jade Business Park, Integra 61, NETPark, Forrest Park and DurhamGate providing highly skilled jobs for our residents.

Why have you put up council tax when public services are being cut?

As Simon’s already mentioned, we have had to live with massive cuts in our funding – local government has borne the brunt of government austerity – with more of the same on the way. Meanwhile demand on the services we deliver is rising, in particular adult and children’s social care.

We have written jointly with 11 other councils across the North-East to the government calling for fairer funding. We have also lobbied ministers over the financial pressures on our schools and will continue to do so.

There has been a shift in how government expects services to be funded and they now assume that we will increase council tax to the maximum levels allowed to continue to deliver services whilst the grant we receive is being cut.

It is a stark choice between continuing to provide services and council tax levels – and like all councils in the North-East we have little choice if we are to maintain what we currently deliver to the public.

We are very conscious of the financial pressures our residents are under and that is why we are the only authority in the North-East to have kept council tax hardship relief at pre 2013/14 levels, to help those struggling to pay.

What long term plans were being made to improve road connections between the A1 and the west of County Durham to try and encourage investment and bring skilled jobs to place like Consett, Teesdale and Weardale?

Good connectivity is key to jobs and growth. Employment sites like Jade Business Park, Integra 61, NETPark, Forrest Park and DurhamGate are all linked to the A1 (M), A19 and East Coast Main Line.

We are currently working with Highways England and partners on proposals to fully dual the A66, which form part of Transport for the North’s Strategic Transport Plan.

The Northern Echo:

The pre-submission draft of our County Durham Plan also includes provision for two new relief roads around Durham, which would reduce congestion and improve access to the city and the A1 for residents in the West of the county.

Through Project Genesis, a new bus depot has also opened at Consett which will add to the public transport offer in North West Durham. We also work with public transport providers to help improve connectivity for our communities too.

Lastly we are committed to ensuring our road network is maintained in as good a condition as possible to improve transport links and make the county more attractive to those companies which can provide skilled jobs for our residents.

What do you think about what Durham County Council have had to say?

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