EFFORTS to grab control of the centre of Billingham are behind a £20m bid to be sent off to the Government.

Stockton Council is seeking money from the multi-billion pound “Levelling Up Fund” for Yarm town centre and an exhibition space at Preston Park.

Now chiefs have revealed £20m of the £40m requested would go towards trying to improve the physical condition of tired parts of Billingham town centre to address “high vacancy rates and excess retail space” hitting the town.

Mixed-use redevelopments, improving access and a “modern retail offering” are part of the vision to take over the centre from privately owned firm St Modwen.

A business case to explore joint ownership of the town centre was agreed by council cabinet members in October.

And earlier this year, councillors agreed to borrow up to £10m to regenerate the area ahead of negotiating a price on land including the West Precinct building and the nearby car park.

The council hasn’t been shy of taking control of commercial spaces in Stockton – with its ownership of Wellington Square shopping centre, and plans to knock down the Castlegate and former Swallow Hotel to make way for a riverside park.

In February, council regeneration director Richard McGuckin told the Local Democracy Reporting Service how St Modwen was moving away from retail – and the council needed to step in to take control of Billingham.

Officials said there were “significant issues” with the condition of some of the structures in the town.

And they believed income generated by the centre would be “more than sufficient” to back the investment.

Mr McGuckin said: “Billingham has got a very loyal customer base.

“In the pandemic, the nature of retailers there has allowed them to continue to trade so it’s a strong proposition.”

Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham hailed the Labour-run council and efforts to take control of the town.

He added: “I’m delighted now to see the council unveil a plan for taking control of Billingham town centre, re-developing it for the 21st century, and seeking funding from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund.

“This plan, which I fully support, will tackle changes in shopping trends and support local businesses in an ever evolving retail environment.

“The plan will also address the physical condition of Billingham town centre which I know is important to local people, and give the council more control over this.

“I will be writing to the minister adding my support for this plan.

“It is bold and ambitious and I hope the Government looks favourably at what the Labour-led Council is seeking to achieve.”

Bids for round one of the funding are to be submitted by Friday and officials say they have been developed in full consultation with both of Stockton’s MPs.

Proposals to develop Preston Park by extending the museum into an exhibition centre and gallery space are part of the two bids – with additional access and infrastructure improvements are also being submitted.

Meanwhile, cash has also been sought to enhance existing pavements in Yarm as well as areas to support outdoor seating and dining opportunities in the town.

Efforts to convert the town hall into a visitor centre with new toilets will also be part of the bid south of the river – as well as plans to improve cycle links in Yarm and Eaglescliffe.

Cllr Nigel Cooke, cabinet member for regeneration, said the council’s ambitions for its town centres aligned with the opportunities of the Levelling Up cash.

He added: “We’re seizing this opportunity and a great deal of work has gone into this to ensure that we meet the criteria – and stand a great chance of being successful in securing investment into our communities that could be transformed by a £40m bid.

“It still remains our ambition to purchase, take back control of Billingham town centre and repurpose the town centre through a number of physical interventions.

“Yarm is an attractive and diverse location for residents and visitors, funding would help secure its long-term future by attracting new visitors to the town.

“Development at Preston Park would also contribute to the image and identity of the borough, setting it apart from other areas and of course, making it easier for residents to access cultural opportunities on their doorsteps.”

A decision on the outcome of the bids is expected in autumn.