A BLUEPRINT for the future of County Durham has officially been approved.

The County Durham Plan is due to pave the way for almost 25,000 new homes by 2035, with the potential for more than 30,000 jobs.

Durham County Council leaders hope the plan, which has been in development for about four years, could also help aid the county’s recovery from coronavirus.

Following several rounds of consultation and a review from an independent government-appointed planning inspector, the plan was judged to be ‘sound'.

On Wednesday, October 21, the plan was given the final seal of approval at a virtual full council meeting – the first to be held since February.

At the meeting, which was held via videolink and broadcast on YouTube, several opposition councillors spoke out against elements of the plan.

This included criticisms that it focused too much on Durham City at the expense of the rest of the county.

However, Labour chiefs hit back stating 85 per cent of new homes proposed in the plan were sidelined for sites outside of Durham City and across the wider county.

Councillors also heard that 66 per cent of housing set out in the plan would be suitable for the elderly and those with disabilities.

Councillor Carl Marshall, cabinet member for economic regeneration, thanked residents, councillors and stakeholders for helping to shape the document.

He told the meeting that the finalised County Durham Plan represented the “vast majority of views put forward and the best interests of our communities.”

“The County Plan is a plan for the whole of County Durham,” he said.

“It’s a plan that seeks to ensure that each and every one of our residents has the best opportunities in life in terms of getting a job, getting on the housing market and living in a great place with real choices.

“It builds on the council’s proven track record of attracting investment including a pipeline of investment projects estimated at a staggering £3.1 billion, with the thousands of jobs this will create – creating more and better jobs, raising ambition and attracting further investment into County Durham and the wider North East region.”

Cllr Marshall added: “[The plan] delivers housing that people need where it is needed, it helps us to address the cause of climate change and adapt to its effects, it identifies infrastructure to support new development and to relieve congestion and improve air quality.

“It protects our important landscapes and natural and historic environment, it allows the right businesses and housing to meet the needs of our rural communities and it sets out a restriction on takeaways in our town centres and close to our schools.”

Work on the County Durham Plan started in 2016, culminating in an assessment by a government-appointed planning inspector three years later.

This deemed that proposed relief roads were not necessary, with other suggested changes including ‘appropriate compensation’ for the loss of greenbelt land at Aykley Heads, in Durham City, where a new business park is planned, and other areas.

An increased proportion of accessible and adaptable homes were also requested to ‘meet the needs of older people and people with disabilities’.

During debate on the plan, concerns were raised about the scrapped relief roads – including two roads on the outskirts of Durham City and a ‘corridor of interest’ at Barnard Castle.

Councillor Richard Bell, leader of the council’s Conservative group and Barnard Castle West division member, said he could not support the plan due to the changes.

He said: “I don’t think anyone expected [the inspector] would allow the building of 1,700 houses at Sniperley Park and 420 at Sherburn Road without new roads.

“I accept that our officers have put in some mitigations to the lack of new relief roads in Durham City.

“But in our view, the house building without new roads will inevitably lead to a significant impact in the quality of life for residents in that area and all those who travel into the city from the west and from the south.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat councillor, Mark Wilkes, said the County Durham Plan “failed to address the inequalities, poverty and need for jobs and investment across huge parts of the county.”

“Overdevelopment to the west of Durham City without any guarantees that we will see proper infrastructure improvements is completely unacceptable to me and to the vast majority of the public,” he said.

“The building on hundreds of acres of greenbelt leaves many residents shocked, angry and upset.”

Independent councillor, Alan Shield, added there was a perception that the plan had a “one size fits all approach”.

He also asked what support would be provided if there was a need or request to develop local neighbourhood plans to supplement the countywide document.

Head of development and housing on the council, Stuart Timmiss, introduced the County Durham Plan to full council.

The council officer said the final version “seeks to ensure that County Durham is a successful place to live, work, invest and visit” with a focus on “supporting and creating vibrant communities.”

Policies include more than 300 hectares of employment land distributed across County Durham, new homes and the removal of greenbelt land at Sniperley Park, Sherburn Road and the former Police Skid Pan at Aykley Heads.

Other policies include supporting rural communities in terms of housing and employment and enhancing and protecting the natural environment.

Councillor Andrea Patterson, cabinet member for corporate services and rural issues, stressed the plan would “offer flexibility to adapt and change according to local needs.”

She added it was important to have an agreed plan in place for the county to “avoid any unwanted developments taking place.”

Following debate, the plan was approved with 68 votes in favour, 15 against and 24 abstentions.