A COUNCIL which is planning to create an international tourist destination to celebrate the birthplace of modern passenger railways has been told it should relinquish some control of the attraction to enable it to flourish in the future.

Darlington Borough Council’s leader Councillor Heather Scott described suggestions that a charitable trust is given a role in the running of the Darlington Rail Heritage Quarter as “very positive” after being told it would encourage more grants and donations than if it was solely a council-run entity.

Cllr Scott was speaking as the authority’s cabinet approved measures to press ahead with the first £20m phase of developing the heritage attraction around the Head of Steam museum site off North Road and some of the surrounding area before the bi-centenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025.

The scheme will see the renovation of the Stockton and Darlington Railway’s grade II listed Goods Shed, a transformed museum featuring an “immersive ride experience” and telling the story of the 1825 railway. There are also ambitions to use the nearby Goods Agent Office, currently occupied by Model Railway Club and Northern Eastern Railway Association, the Carriage Works, currently occupied by A1 Trust and North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group and an 1861 shed for live engineering. The authority is also aiming to build a live engineering shed with a private rail siding, with internal viewing areas for the public to view work going on within the shed.

Richard Taylor, chairman of the 125-member Friends of Darlington Railway Museum, told the cabinet meeting the fundraising group were excited by the future educational, tourism and community benefits of the project and its ambition in unifying the currently fragmented site.

Mr Taylor, a former senior curator at the National Railway Museum in York, said: “The Friends of the Museum are not interested in keeping the museum as it is for its existing users. We want it to develop and grow into the future.

He said key to the success of the attraction would be the ability to move rail vehicles on and off the site to enable large displays to be refreshed.

Mr Taylor added following the National Lottery Heritage Fund rejecting the council’s bid to help fund the project, there would be limited future funding options for the authority if it did not create a charitable trust to either manage or fundraise for the museum.

He said: “As people who raise money for the museum we do have some reservations about the financial sustainability. We know the original museum was a trust that didn’t work out at the time but the heritage world has moved on and museum trusts are very much a common element of the funding and management mix of museums. Many donors are reluctant to give to a local authority operation because they are looking for guarantees that donations can be ring-fenced or carried over a year end and not disappear into the general pot.”

Cllr Scott said the authority had been “extremely disappointed” when its bid for the scheme was rejected by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. She added: “We are still trying to find out why we didn’t meet the criteria.”

She described the Friends’ suggestions as very positive and said the authority would hold talks with the group.

Cllr Scott said while the Darlington’s Rail Heritage Quarter would not be in competition with the Locomotion museum in Shildon or the National Railway Museum in York, it was important that the borough’s attraction “does not lose out” during the bi-centenary celebrations.

She said: “We do want to work together we everybody on this event. We have got to explore every single thing we possibly can to make sure when we get to 2025 we have got the best museum.”

“There is cross-party support for this. It is important that Darlington does celebrate the original Stockton and Darlington Railway and that we punch above our weight and are very ambitious in this project.”