In her first major interview since becoming Darlington's first female council leader, Heather Scott tells Chris Lloyd about her past and her hopes for the future

IN May 1976, Abba’s Fernando knocked Save All Your Kisses For Me by the Brotherhood of Man off the No 1 slot in the pop charts and Margaret Thatcher had her first go at knocking the weak Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, out of No 10.

The previous year, the country had voted in a referendum to remain within the European Economic Community and in the 1976 local elections, the Conservatives swept the country.

“We’d just moved into Darlington and the party was short of candidates,” says Heather Scott. “Someone asked my husband, knowing I had been involved in the Young Conservatives in Barnard Castle, whether I would like to stand and he said ‘no, she hasn’t got time’.”

Darlington overwhelmingly voted to come out of the EU and that is still the feeling of the people. I voted to go in to the common market but it has changed so much since then and there's now too much control from Europe so they want to come out. I believe we have to go along with the majority of the people. - Heather Scott on Brexit 

In telling the next part of her story, Cllr Scott adopts the sort of steely voice with which Mrs Thatcher slayed the “moaning minnies”.

“I said ‘don’t you ever make decisions for me – yes, I will stand,” she says.

In Darlington in 1976, the Conservatives won 22 seats taking their total to 30, toppling Labour, who lost 13, and the Liberals who lost all eight of their seats.

“It was a landslide, totally unexpected and I was amazed to be elected,” she says. “We were really thrown in at the deep end.”

It was the start of a political career that is not so much a journey, as modern parlance would have it, but an epic odyssey. Now 43 years later, it has reached its holy grail: Cllr Scott has become the first female leader of Darlington Borough Council in its 152 year history.

“It has always been an ambition and it’s great it has finally come to fruition,” she says. “I always hoped it would happen.”

Her childhood was spent 1,370ft above sea level beside the Stainmore summits of the trans-Pennine road and rail routes. Her grandfather was a gamekeeper on the moors and her father ran a garage looking after cars.

“There were four cottages up there, right beside the railway, and in the bad winter of 1947, when the train got stuck in the snowdrift at Bleath Gill for five days, the passengers came and slept on our floor until the train was released,” she says.

It was her father who got her interested in politics. “We had some very interesting conversations,” she says. “He was a very right wing Conservative.” When the family moved into Barnard Castle, she joined the Young Conservatives for the social side and got sucked into canvassing.

I am concerned that apart from Sajid Javid, none of the contenders has mentioned the north yet and it worries me that a lot in Westminster don't have a clue where we are. I haven't yet made up my mind - James Wharton (the former Stockton South MP) is running Boris's campaign and he has some knowledge of the north." - Heather Scott on the Tory leadership race

She married Gordon, and they started off running the post office in East Cowton. “Working together didn’t work very well so we sold up and moved into Darlington,” she says, and soon afterwards, despite her time being occupied with her two daughters, surprisingly found herself a councillor.

In the 1980s, Labour had control of the council and the Conservatives concentrated on keeping Michael Fallon as the MP for the marginal town. Cllr Scott had Parliamentary ambitions of her own, putting herself forward for selection in Durham, Newcastle, Bishop Auckland and Richmond.

“A lot of women were on the selection committees and in those days, they really didn’t think that women should be becoming MPs, and the type of questions that I got were ‘what does your husband think about this’ and ‘how are you going to look after your children’,” she says. “I would have loved to have be an MP but I have to accept that it didn’t happen.”

In 1989, her year as mayor – a year of charitable fund-raising including a skydive and being kidnapped – came to end with the award of an OBE for services to politics and the community. She was 49; her Parliamentary ambitions thwarted, she had just lost out in the leadership of the local Tory group to Tony Richmond, and so an outside observer might have concluded that her career had reached a natural conclusion.

We are hoping to get independent trustees to take over the running of the library so that it is there for perpetuity and if there is a change of control of the authority, it is never put back in jeopardy again. The building will always have to remain in the ownership of the local authority, and I would like it to be more of a heritage centre, but we are committed to keeping the library there. I think the Labour group totally misjudged the feeling of the town. We should be encouraging more children to get into the library and get them interested in books and reading, because even schools nowadays don't have big libraries. - Heather Scott on the library

But this epic odyssey is ultimately a triumph of perseverance: in 2007, she was elected group leader and, in 2019, the Tories finally became the largest group on the council. With the support of three independent councillors and the three LibDems, she was able to bring 40 years of Labour council control to an end.

“I think the Ben Houchen effect worked for us, and we had our candidate Peter Gibson working with us, and our social media activity really helped,” she says. “It would have been better if we had overall control but the good thing that has come out of it is that I have a working agreement – not a coalition – with the independents and the LibDems and I’m having discussions with the greens. My ambition is to work together for the benefit of the town, and I do hope we can get some of the Labour members on board, but so far I am not too confident about that.”

Now 79, Cllr Scott, who is also known for her brightly coloured fingernails and her support for the Bowes Museum, is not ready for her odyssey which started 43 years ago to come to an end.

“You have got to recognise how long you can continue, and in our group there are several of us who might not go further than this four year term, but we are planning for succession,” she says, bridling at the impertinence of the question. “Having just achieved this lifetime ambition, maybe they will have to drag me out.”


The town centre

“IT is critical that we do something to attract more people back into Darlington,” she says. She sees the refurbishment of the indoor market as critical, and points to the council’s proposed purchase of a fire-damaged shop on Skinnergate as evidence of its commitment to the shift to residential usage.

She sees the town’s increased interest in the Northumbria in Bloom competition The Conservative manifesto spoke of moving stalls back into the market square and introducing two hours free parking.

“It will cost money, but you’ve got to balance that with the extra footfall you will hopefully get in the town,” she says.

Open council

“DURING the campaign, the public told us that they really felt that their views are not taken seriously, that nobody in this building (the town hall) listens,” she says. “We are going to take the cabinet out into different parts of the town, and I’m encouraging cabinet members to get more involved in residents’ groups, even to sit in supermarkets talking to people, so that we are listening to people.”

The environment

“WE have to encourage developers to be more environmentally friendly in the design of houses: we have more open spaces and play areas in new estates,” she says. “The Local Plan has to have a balance between sufficient green open space and the need for housing. We need to attract people and companies to come here to Darlington so we have to make sure we have housing for them and also for younger families, so we need a balance.

“Skerningham (a plan for 4,000 on the northern edge of the town) is extremely controversial and we haven’t made a decision. The Government is keen on garden villages and the benefit of that is the infrastructure, the shops and schools, are there from the beginning.”