LABOUR’S stronghold on Durham County Council will face one its biggest challenges in more than a century when voters go to the polls this week.

The 2019 General Election saw the party’s ‘red wall’ collapse in traditional northern heartlands, notably the North-East, with a swathe of new Tory candidates ousting sitting MPs.

The Northern Echo: Durham city is currently undergoing major redevelopment Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

In County Durham, Tony Blair’s former constituency of Sedgefield was taken from Phil Wilson by Paul Howell, left-wing firebrand Laura Pidcock lost North-West Durham to Richard Holden while in Bishop Auckland Dehenna Davison replaced Helen Goodman.

Many people had never voted Conservative before but for many people the election was being determined by the polarising issues of Brexit and the hard left agenda pursued by the Labour Party under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

During a post-election victory rally at Sedgefield Cricket Club, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to ‘repay the trust of people in the region’ who had ‘lent him’ their vote by levelling up the disparity in the economy between the regions.

The Northern Echo:

The Conservative Party is now hoping to replicate the success of the election 18 months ago by replacing longstanding Labour Party councillors with Tory candidates, something unthinkable in many wards only a few years ago.

But now, the question of how Britain will leave the UK has been resolved and the Labour Party is under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour currently hold 68 of the 126 seats so a loss of just five seats would see them lose their majority.

The Conservative group leader on the county council Richard Bell, who hopes to retain his Barnard Castle West seat, said: "Undoubtedly winning North West Durham, Sedgefield and Bishop Auckland at the General Election has given us a boost.

The Northern Echo:

"People are more willing now to come and help. The challenge remains though that it’s about getting people to turn out for council elections, and while the signs are that postal voting is high, the job is now to persuade people to vote in person.

"Our core messages have been well received: Stop Labour Waste- we’ve been against the new County Hall from the start; keep Council Tax down; make Planning Committees local; fix our roads, and improve investment for jobs across the county.

"There’s a feeling that Derwentside and the Dales only get crumbs from the DCC table. We want to treat all areas fairly- levelling up within County Durham.

"The Government has given £19.9m for Bishop Auckland under the Future High Streets fund, and we will work to get more Government support.

"And there is a feeling that it isn’t healthy for democracy to have had Labour in power for over 100 years at County Hall.

"We are campaigning vigorously like we’ve never been done before. "We have some great candidates. There really is an opportunity to change things this week."

Meanwhile, despite the success of Covid vaccine rollout, Boris Johnson is under fire for his handling of the pandemic and the Tory party is once again mired in allegations of corruption and sleaze.

One of the most recognisable candidates standing in the south of the county is former Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman.

The Northern Echo:

She said: “As an MP I learned that many things – like the local environment, neighbourhoods and housing are more under the control of the Council.

"Labour Durham now employs 100 litter pickers; has filled 10,000 potholes this year already and is devolving £600,000 to every local community so that local groups and people can decide local priorities.

"Labour Durham will build 500 new council homes, but planning decisions must respect local views; protect green areas and be used to regenerate rundown town and village centres. We are investing with 3 new leisure centres and new school buildings.

"We are proud of Labour Durham’s work during Covid.

"We gave help and support to 75,000 people and when the Tory government failed we stepped in with free school meals for children.

The Northern Echo: Helen Goodman is calling for a change in the law after 25 horses were galloping round St Helen Auckland   Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

"Durham was faster to get £163m of support to businesses than other councils across the UK and we’ve set up a £5m Recovery Fund.

"We are creating 30,000 good jobs across the County in manufacturing (like sumitomo at Jade), high tech (like Netpark),finance (like Atom) and small business support.

"So that new jobs go to local people we’re providing training for 9,000 .

"We’ve even kept council tax rises down below Tory Darlington, Northumberland and North Yorkshire.

“When I started telephone canvassing back in January people were pretty depressed, it was winter, they were in lockdown.

“But about a fortnight ago I noticed a real shift, people were engaging and asking about the issues that matter to them – looking after their families, life and work after furlough, the areas they care about.

“They were asking themselves ‘who do I really think will look after me and my community?’ and I think Labour has a record of achievements with local issues.

“The Government has been shooting itself in the foot.

“I think there are people who lent their vote to Tories in 2019 making a direct switch back, I think Labour voters who stayed at home because they were demoralised now have more confidence in the leadership and our capacity to tackle local issues and I think some people who backed the Tories are now feeling uncertain and may stay home.”

But it is far from a two-horse race at Durham County Council with other parties including Liberal Democrats and The Green Party fielding candidates across the 63 wards, along with many independents.

Amanda Hopgood, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the official opposition on Durham County Council, said: "We have been leading the fight against Labour waste for many years now.

"Their failure to invest in our roads, their repeated waste of taxpayers money on projects like the floodplain HQ, and their inability to listen to residents mean we are seeing a big shift away from Labour in many areas.

"Do not be surprised if you see an increase in the number of Liberal Democrats on Durham County Council this week."

Independent candidate in Ferryhill, the town’s current Mayor Joe Makepeace, said: “Labour’s majority is threatened because they’ve failed to deliver enough despite 100 years or so in power.

The Northern Echo:

“Local councillors need to work with central Government to make things happen and independents will work with the people they need to, to get things done.

“Even when a Labour Prime Minister was living in Trimdon, the area didn’t see the benefits of that.

“Times are changing, a lot of people don’t like or relate to the socialist brand anymore and see that Labour won’t let anyone else in, the structures and committees are all about control but independent councillors are not tied to votes so will do what they think is best for their area and its people.”

Durham County Council, a unitary authority since 2009, is currently made up of 68 Labour councillors, 15 Liberal Democrat councillors, 12 Independent councillors, ten Conservative councillors, seven Derwentside Independent councillors, four Spennymoor Independent People Before Politics councillors three North East Party councillors, six other councillors and one Labour and Co-operative councillor.

Voters across County Durham will also determine the future of 13 town and 91 parish councils.