A TOWN leader has said he expects Darlington to be in a strong position in two years' time, telling councillors: "We're not going to give up." 

Councillor Jonathan Dulston, deputy leader of Darlington Borough Council, said the town was at the top of the Government's agenda and money was coming in "thick and fast".

The Conservative member set out his optimistic outlook partly in response to the opposition Labour leader, who said the plans were undeliverable because of austerity funding cuts.

Cllr Dulston told this week's council's cabinet meeting of proposals to draw up a levelling up plan for Darlington.

This is intended to make the most of Government investment and support residents in need, particularly people whose work was harmed by Covid-19.

It focuses on attracting more quality jobs, helping people from deprived communities improve their prospects and get such jobs, and improving health, particularly mental health.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Jonathan Dulston of Darlington Borough Council

Cllr Dulston said: "One of this council's main priorities is to build stronger communities where residents have access to the same opportunity and experiences right across the borough.

"The council cannot do this alone. It must engage with partners to solve some of the obstacles that are preventing people from succeeding.

"For far too long certain communities have been left behind whilst other communities have thrived.

"This can't continue and work has already started in areas like Northgate, where the council and other organisations have invested in services along with tailored support to overcome the barriers that are impacting residents' lives.

"This report seeks approval for the council to develop a meaningful framework that will be used as a plan for how the local authority and partners can identify and tackle inequality that exists within our town."

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He said the skills gap for young people was a key area but inward investment was very strong, with the Government's commitment to send 1,500 jobs to Darlington for the new economic campus.

He added: "There has never been a more optimistic time for people to get into work in Darlington.

"To do this, however, the council must have a clear plan with other education providers on the skills most suited to these opportunities.

"And I'm glad that the Towns Fund is already geared up to develop a new skills centre in the town."

Labour group leader Cllr Stephen Harker said: "Much of the Towns Fund is about bricks and mortar.

"Very little of it is about looking at some of these deep-seated issues that we face that are seeing such things as life expectancy falling in a way that it hasn't since 1900."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Stephen Harker. Credit: Darlington Borough Council.Cllr Stephen Harker. Credit: Darlington Borough Council.

He said the plans were "laudable" but the "elephant in the room" was the council and its partners would not be able to carry them out and would struggle to tackle the important issues because of funding cuts.

Cllr Dulston replied: "In 2010 you said there was no money so yous gave up and you stopped trying.

"The reality is, there is money, our partners do have money and our partners are completely engaged in dealing with some of these issues.

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"Now, I completely accept we will need Government's help on a number of them, the main one being funding.

"And I think the funding coming into Darlington is coming in thick and fast.

"I think we're absolutely at the top of their agenda, as is the North-east. 1,500 jobs coming.

"What this council needs to do now is focus on giving an excellent service and developing the package of support and skills that people need to go on and thrive.

"And I'm confident in two years' time we will be in a really strong position and absolutely changing people's lives for the positive, because we're not going to give up."

Council leader Cllr Heather Scott: "I'm sorry, Cllr Harker, that you are so negative.

"We are here to do the best we possibly can for Darlington.

"You just seem to be criticising and negatising absolutely everything.

"We are here for the people of Darlington, we are doing the best that we possibly can, we are lobbying Government, we are getting money into Darlington and we will continue to do that.

"I just hope that at some stage you will support us."

Green group leader Cllr Matthew Snedker said: "A decade of deep cuts has taken a deep toll on the North-east in particular.

"To turn it around will take a long time. You set yourself two years.

"I wish you luck and I'll work with you on that but I feel that speaking to headteachers, consultants, GPs, they are not as optimistic as you, they see a deep-seated decline.

"If we can turn it around quickly that's great but we will need a substantial increase in funding from the Treasury to all arms of the state.

"I hope it comes through. Two years will be a miracle. Five years will be very welcome."

Cllr Dulston said: "This is very ambitious and we understand there's a lot of issues post-Covid that we need to deal with.

"Our partners are fully engaged in the work that we're doing to level up. They share our enthusiasm, they're geared up, they're embracing the challenge."

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