DURHAM County Council has been accused of leaving an electrical timebomb under the streets of Darlington town centre, which has already hit scores of businesses and has the potential to devastate others.

It has emerged that lengthy power outages suffered by firms in Skinnergate, Blackwellgate and the Yards area of Darlington town centre is related to work carried out by the county council, before the town’s council became a unitary authority in 1997.

Northern Powergrid engineers investigating numerous faults have found cables under the streets were encased in concrete, a practice that has been described as “highly unusual”.

As the concrete has expanded and contracted due to temperature changes it has led to cracks in the electrical junctions, which have taken up to a week to locate and fix.

Traders said power outages started some 18 months ago and the issues were getting worse. Their concerns were amplified when they had no electricity for the entire Darlington Carnival weekend at the end of June.

It has been estimated the issue could cost up about £1m to fully rectify and questions have been raised over which body should be responsible for funding the work.

Les Fry, whose family have run the award-winning Voodoo Cafe, in Skinnergate for ten years, said losing £7,000 of takings during the carnival had devastated the business and would take many months to claw back.

He said: “This is life-threatening to businesses such as ours, as we are never going to get the money back in insurance. We’ve had a meeting with Darlington council, which has fabulous plans to improve the town, but there may be fewer businesses here if the electricity is not sorted urgently as we can’t sustain another hit like the carnival weekend.”

Councillor Libby McCollom said while the survival of independent businesses such as Voodoo Cafe were critical to the future success of Darlington town centre, the demands being placed on the electrical network was set to grow with the authority’s aim of increasing residential properties in the area.

She said: “It breaks my heart to see the businesses affected in this way. There is some blame to be put in the divorce from Durham County Council.”

Councillor Alan Marshall, the borough council’s cabinet member for economy and regeneration, said the authority was holding ongoing discussions about a range of options with Northern Powergrid.

A spokeswoman from Northern Powergrid, described the fault as “complex” and said it was planning to invest in the Skinnergate section of network to improve reliability for customers who had faced disruption.

She said: “Once our plans are fully approved, we will work in partnership with the local authority to deliver them and will minimise disruption, wherever possible, for local people and businesses.” The firm said it would undertake some initial improvements in the area next month.

The county council did not directly respond to claims that it was responsible for sub-standard work in the Skinnergate area.

However, Mark Readman, its highways services manager, said: “All works were completed in accordance with the Darlington authority’s contract documents, specification and drawings. At no point would the county council be responsible for installation or maintenance of electric cables.”