Mike Hughes joins Durham County Council  Chief Executive John Hewitt and Leader Amanda Hopgood on a tour of the county - by day and by night


READ this and tell me this isn’t a place you would love to visit: “Home to breathtaking landscapes, outstanding cultural attractions, unparalleled grassroots sport, world-first heritage, spectacular events, world class research and a growing sector of artists, entrepreneurs and creatives.”

That’s the thing about County Durham: everything it has, from revered heritage to the newest buildings is just about the best there is. This whole place – more than 530,000 people living in about 250,000 households spread over 862 square miles – is the epitome of a county.

The fact that it has the lot must infuriate other regions, but the county’s secret – led by the County Council and its newest heads, Chief Executive John Hewitt and Leader Amanda Hopgood, is balance.

The Northern Echo: Amanda HopgoodAmanda Hopgood

So much of the appeal here is inherited history, but it has to be curated, protected and promoted and then anything that is added to the county, buildings, businesses or strategies has to be in harmony with what is there already.

That is a balancing act, just as much as the day and night economies have to be balanced so that each works with its particular audience and also provides plenty of overlap so that those coming here for the day want to stay for the night.

Lumiere and the Capital of Culture bid for 2025 are key to providing this balance, but as well as such major landmarks there needs to be an ever-growing list of reasons to visit and stay.

More balancing acts for John and Amanda.

John said: “During the peak season, we've got the students who are in the city which is where a lot of our night time economy is and what we've tried to do in terms of investment is just build something around the wider aspect of life, very much trying to create a day and a night life that appeals to a wider audience.

The Northern Echo: John HewittJohn Hewitt

“So you'll see there's a lot of investment going on around Milburngate on that side of the river, which is very much about our leisure offer and just trying to expand that, particularly in Durham city so that it becomes a much more diverse offer to people who want to come to Durham City for the day out.

“It really is about the balance and it's been very challenging through Covid as I'm sure you can imagine, but we will absolutely be keeping that going and getting the safety aspects right across the county so that we can focus on what our individual towns and villages have to offer.”

For Amanda this is about using all the possible tools and strategies at their disposal to make each visitor, resident and investor feel there is something for them here and that their specific needs are being recognised and looked after.

She told me: “As challenging as it is, there needs to be something for everyone.

“So if you were to look at Durham City but also further afield, as someone in their 50s I could go out with my husband for the night or we could go out with couples or I could meet up with my friends in the afternoon .

“We've got everything from champagne bars to traditional pubs and supper clubs as well as fabulous restaurants and the Everyman cinema coming. But also, no matter what age group or demographic across the county we've got people who travel, so we have the likes of The Impeccable Pig at Sedgefield and the Raby Hunt outside Darlington

“We've got Michelin starred restaurants or fish and chips up the coast, so why leave the county and go up to Newcastle for a thriving night-time economy.

“We will never spoil the assets we have,” added Amanda “but will take advantage of them as we grow with them.

“There won't be many places in this country that you will be able to sit like you will be able to in one of those new restaurants in Milburngate with the iconic view of the cathedral and the castle.

“I will guarantee that the restaurants with those views will practically be booked out every night – the perfect merging of history and heritage and brand.”

But it is an unavoidable point that as those families, couples and solo visitors plan their trips out, they have to feel safe and welcomed, not at risk as we have all seen in so many dreadful incidents. Amanda is keen to promote the region as a safe place to visit, with the support of the Safe Durham Partnership, whose vision is summed up as ‘Durham is a county where every adult and child will feel and be safe’.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 placed a statutory duty on local authorities to form a Partnership to tackle crime, disorder, anti-social behaviour, substance misuse and other behaviour adversely affecting the local environment and to reduce re-offending.

The Safe Durham Partnership says on its website ‘Being and feeling safe both in our homes and within the wider community impacts on both our emotional and physical wellbeing. It also directly impacts on our personal resilience as well as impacting overall on a community’s resilience, confidence and cohesion.’

Amanda adds: “The SDP works across agencies and so police, university, council, we all work together and a lot of the pubs sign up to that and we put things in place through licensing.

“We have people out on the streets every evening and when students start here they're given information about where to go in terms of lit walkways and safe routes. But we live in the 21st century and you can never guarantee someone 100%, but it’s important not me that I would be comfortable walking around Durham on my own and night.

“I've got a 23-year-old daughter and John has a younger daughter and I know they would do the same. I couldn’t say I would feel safe in ever city in the UK, but I do in Durham, partly because it is quite compact, so you're never far away from anyone.”

John says the old and the new are both essential for the county to thrive as more jobs arrive and new businesses make choice about their future bases.

“It is that shift in thinking that we're talking about and I know Amanda and the new leadership are really keen to continue the narrative around more and better jobs across the county, so we are still very keen on the Aykley Heads site being developed and then in terms of people coming in for jobs, they're impact on the economy, which is really important for us going forward.

“And if you take that discussion to the next logical step, we've always been very keen on a culture-led regeneration as well, so it's an opportune time to talk about Lumiere and the City of Culture bid, which is raising the profile of the county already.

“We know we've got a little bit of work to do around how we join things up across the county so that somebody can spend a whole day and night doing different things in County Durham, but that's an ambition that we've got to make that a much bigger and better experience building on the work that we've already done.

“And then in terms of big shifts, something like Milburngate just takes us to the next level.”

As far as landmark moments go, they don’t come much bigger than Milburngate, Lumiere and the City of Culture, each of which bring their own influences to the whole county.


A huge £120million development on the banks of the River Wear in the very heart of Durham. There will be 60,000 square feet of retail and entertainment, 230,000 sq ft of Grade A offices, 600 car park spaces, 153 apartments and a Premier Inn hotel.


A festival of lights taking thousands of visitors on a night-time tour of Durham City Centre and places like Raby Castle and Ushaw College.

The Northern Echo: LumiereLumiere

The first Lumiere light festival took place in Durham in 2009. Originally planned as a one-off, with the support of Durham County Council and other sponsors, producers Artichoke have brought the event back to the North East every other year since then.

In 2017, a record 240,000 visitors came to Lumiere in Durham enjoying a programme that mixed family-friendly interactive installations with groundbreaking artistic commissions, stand alone light sculptures and floodlit landmarks.

Amanda says it has widespread benefits: “It's the extra that Lumiere brings as well, with the people who get engaged with it in the months leading up to the event and then out into communities, where we work with our Area Action Partnership and our schools and with hundreds of people who are creating the installations

“They can then come out with their families and see it and we can see people’s personal pride in where they are from and where they live, saying ‘ look - that's me on there.’”

The AAP that Amanda works with lives up to its name – it is for 26 areas of the county, and it takes action by collaborating and working together. The partnership consists of members of the public, representatives from Durham County Council, town and parish councils, police, fire, health, housing, business, university and voluntary organisations.

Together they work with communities and organisations to meet the needs of the community, identifying local priorities and actions required to tackle them. They also allocate funding to local organisations and support their development.

City of Culture:

Durham is one of eight areas longlisted to be UK City of Culture 2025. The team behind the bid aims to secure the title for the whole of County Durham, including the city.

They say: “We want to be at the centre of the nation’s cultural life in 2025 and to make sure that people from across the county and beyond reap the benefits that this status would bring.

“Culture has long been the beating heart of life in Durham. Our communities are built on the strong foundations of industry, a tradition of independence and the desire to come together to celebrate and create and we believe that culture belongs to everyone – we are equally proud of our internationally recognised festivals and heritage, as well as the culture we create in our daily lives.”

Success would place communities at the heart of a year-long programme of events and activities that would lead to a long-term boost for the economy and have a lasting impact on the county’s future.

John says putting in the bid was a bold decision, but the right one. “We are viewing this very much as a county bid because the city is certainly the right place, but it also about all the cultural assets we've got right across the county that we think are quite unique.

“We probably haven't shouted about that enough in the past, but it is time to do that now and there is certainly a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make sure we have all our partners talking about County Durham in the best way we can to have success in the bidding process.

“Everybody is behind it and there is a huge push across County Durham.”

“Our ambitions here are all about it being a destination rather than just a pass through,” said Amanda.

“You could spend a week here and not see everything and there are very few places in Britain where you can be 20 minutes from the coast and 20 minutes from an area of natural beauty like the Dales.

“And running permanently alongside all those goals and all this activity are jobs - the thread that runs through it all because the more you build and promote, the more people will want to build homes and careers here.

“The hospitality and arts and entertainment sector create jobs often as the first step on the career ladder and we have a huge amount of students in Durham, so if they were to work here then the chances are they might stay through the holidays as well so that so we have that economy all year round rather than just for 36 or 39 weeks a year.

“So that's really key and important, but also that once they have qualified we are really keen to create more and better jobs in terms of people who come to Durham for university but then stay and maybe set up a business or come to work for local businesses.

“We don’t want any prospective workers heading off down south because they don't think there's anything here for them, when we know there is so much already and so much more to come.”

For every new paving slab laid there has to be an old cobble protected, and John and Amanda – both born and bred in the county - are determined that its rich heritage will be enhanced by anything that happens on their watch, so that people who come to the county for its heritage are also drawn to experience its social life and those coming for the pubs, clubs and leisure can’t resist a walk up to the Cathedral the next day.

John says: “That’s a huge strength of our county and a big part of our City of Culture bid, that the heritage here is just second to none and Amanda and I both grew up through different generations of that heritage and all the changes following the decline of some of the manufacturing industries so we know we can do this, but it is really about just building on the strengths we've got.”

If businesses feel safe and supported and see the potential, then they will grow or relocate here and bring their staff and their families, so the business offering has to be spot-on as well to complete the package.

John tells me: “Aykley Heads is a key employment site for us in attracting high-quality jobs, but across the new administration there is a desire to look at what's going on right across the county and look at the strengths we've got around our towns, our villages and how can we build on what is there now.

“There might be some areas of the county where we need to think about something different to bring in other jobs because there are hundreds of millions of pounds going into lots of different employment sites and we are working on a town-by-town basis based on the masterplan we've got for those areas.”

The range of employment in the county needs to be as diverse as the people and places that need it, says Amanda:

“County Durham is a huge place with lots of rural areas and some of those areas don't have the employment that we need them to have, so it's really important that people growing up out there and who want to stay living there have job opportunities locally.

“Crucially, that will also help us moving forward when it comes to climate change if people aren't having to travel 30 or 40 miles to go to work if we’ve got units in Teesdale or Weardale where people can enjoy that environment of both home and work balance.

“You don't have to stay in the same house forever but you can stay in the same region and we know that’s because one size doesn't fit all.

“We have a diverse landscape, a diverse population, so why shouldn't we have diverse employment opportunities as well so that we can be sustainable for the future.

“We’ve seen what happens in generations gone, so if one area of work collapses, we don’t lose everything.”

Whatever the new businesses that arrive or tourists who visit, how many go to Lumiere or what the outcome is of the Culture bid, there is a feeling here about leaving a legacy to match the one that started centuries ago.

The whole county – led by the city – is a living and growing part of the past and the future for the North East. There is no full stop to this story because every business and resident has to be supported, inspired and enabled to grow and build on what has gone before, not by crudely bolting something on, but by merging so seamlessly that the same pride of place that John and Amanda have now is still there for generations to come.


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