THE Northern Echo's iconic 100-year-old home in the heart of Darlington has been sold for conversion into apartments.

The purchaser is Darlington Borough Council, which plans to create an adult skills and training centre on the ground floor with Darlington College, although the council and the Echo are exploring ways in which the paper could continue to be based on the corner site which it has occupied since 1870.

Most of the money for the council's acquisition is coming through the Government's Towns Fund, which aims to create new futures for town centres.

Councillor Heather Scott, leader of Darlington Borough Council, said: “The Echo building in Priestgate is one of our town’s most iconic buildings – up there with the clock tower and Victorian covered market in terms of being instantly recognisable to Darlington people.

“There has long been speculation about the future of the building and I am delighted we’ll be able to use money from the Towns Fund to acquire it and breathe new life into it, whilst always being respectful of its heritage.

“I do hope an agreement can be reached with the publishers of The Northern Echo for journalists to continue to have a base at Priestgate in the future.

“I look forward to sharing more details of this exciting development in due course.”

The Echo was set up in 1870 in an old boot and shoe lace factory in Priestgate, but during the First World War it built the distinctive corner premises with a large press hall behind. Most of the construction work was done in 1915, although because of war delays, it wasn't until September 3, 1917, that there was an official opening ceremony.

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There has been speculation about the building's future for the last 30 years. It was going to be incorporated into the adjoining Cornmill shopping centre in the late 1980s, and at one point Debenhams was in advanced negotiations about turning it into a department store. The changing face of retail scuppered those plans, and most recently private developers have brought forward unsuccessful residential plans.

The council hopes to transform the upper floors into apartments, with an adult skills and training centre on the ground floor, along with additional flexible commercial space for local businesses, and perhaps the Echo itself as a long-term anchor tenant.

Karl Holbrook, editor of The Northern Echo, said: “The sale of our Priestgate base paves the way for an exciting new future for this iconic building, The Northern Echo and, indeed, for Darlington itself.

“Changes to our industry, particularly a rise in digital operations and latterly a move towards more flexible working arrangements in the wake of the Covid pandemic, mean that our beloved Priestgate site is no longer suitable for our needs.

“This move will allow this important building to find a new future at the heart of Darlington council’s exciting redevelopment plans. It will also pave the way for the future of The Northern Echo, which is now one of the fastest growing digital news providers in the UK, by allowing our staff to move into accommodation that is more suited to a modern news and digital marketing services business.”

David Coates, regional managing director of the Echo's owner, Newsquest Yorkshire and North-East, said: “While the sale has been agreed, subject to contract, The Northern Echo will remain in Priestgate while we explore options for new offices. One option under consideration is for the Echo to retain offices as part of a redeveloped Priestgate. But, whatever the outcome, we will be remaining in Darlington.”

Kate Roe, principal of Darlington College, said: “This is a truly exciting project for Darlington, and the college is looking forward to working with our partners on this key town centre development.

“We already work with The Northern Echo to deliver their journalism apprenticeships and this project will be a natural extension of existing partnerships.

“We believe the potential for a dedicated, well equipped, really accessible adult learning facility would be a great addition to the town centre.”