With less than a year before local elections for Darlington Borough Council, local democracy reporter Gareth Lightfoot talks to group leaders about their hopes and plans for the town.

In the first of a series of features, Councillors Heather Scott and Jonathan Dulston speak of their optimism that "the good days are coming back".

 

IT was one of a number of seismic shifts in political power across the North East.

For the then Conservative council leader Cllr Heather Scott, taking office in 2019, it was something more.

"I'd been in opposition for so long, for me it was just a dream come true really,” says Cllr Scott, who has since stepped down as leader but continues as a ward councillor.

"I think the public were pleased. They were looking forward to a change.”

Cllr Jonathan Dulston - speaking as her deputy, but since ascended to council leader - says: "I think for me in 2019 the people in Darlington spoke really clearly that they wanted a new direction for the town.

"It genuinely felt like a renewed sense of optimism. A new day had dawned in Darlington.”

Read more: Who is Jonathon Dulston? The new council leader for Darlington

Three years on, they say that optimism has endured, despite Covid-19, three lockdowns and a cost of living crisis.

Speaking from Firthmoor Community Centre, they talk of ambition, inclusivity, transparency and communication, "out there in the communities delivering for the people".

They plan to make the council more open and “future-fit”, overhaul the chamber, stream more meetings and hold cabinet meetings in communities, using more plain English, less jargon.

"There definitely was a disconnect between the council and the people. I think that's much better now,” says Cllr Scott.

"If you've got problems, come and talk to us."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Heather Scott. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Heather Scott. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.

Cllr Dulston says: "We do listen."

The Darlington Local Plan - narrowly passed despite fierce opposition to the controversial Skerningham development - arguably put this to the test.

"It was approved in the Local Plan and the [Government] inspector approved it,” says Cllr Scott.

“There is a need for housing. The housing has got to go somewhere.”

She maintains the Local Plan is the only way to have some control and protect land from developers.

Read more: Darlington local plan including Skerningham development is PASSED

Cllr Dulston says: "We have to as an administration take the tough decisions.

"And the Local Plan is our best opportunity to protect and safeguard green space across the borough.”

Both say the best way for objectors to have their say now is through the plans' design.

“I would urge as many people who have got an interest to get involved,” says Cllr Dulston.

“We saved Springfield Park. We heard the people of that part of town loud and clear. And the Blackwell Heritage Parkland."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Jonathan Dulston. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Jonathan Dulston. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.

Cllr Scott sees “tremendous” opportunities in Darlington, saying most Treasury jobs were going to locals.

“Businesses are interested in coming here. This gives our young people a chance to have some good jobs.

"There's a good feeling about the town, a positive feel.”

Cllr Dulston says they are delivering on their promises, from protecting the Crown Street library to fixing potholes.

“The last two years we have filled record levels of holes. In fact, strike that. We’ve completely resurfaced the roads,” he says.

Read more: Heather Scott - The Darlington leader and great survivor

"We're absolutely listening, but we're not scared to reverse stuff when we get it wrong,” he adds, referring to the movement of Darlington’s outdoor market.

They point to successes including pavement cafes, the forthcoming Rail Heritage Quarter and Bank Top Station developments, the Towns Fund, and getting rid of “that horrible throughabout” on Haughton Road.

The Northern Echo:

Amid financial hardship, the leaders say they are looking at projects to support people.

Cllr Scott says: "We've always said we do the best we possibly can for the people of Darlington and we will continue to do that.

"Wherever we need to lobby national government to take more heed of what we want here, we will continue to do that as well.

"And if we're in conflict sometimes with national government policy, so be it.”

Read more: Darlington Council - 'Incredible' Heather Scott praised

Cllr Dulston says: "We're acutely aware that people are finding the pinch at the moment.”

They are particularly proud of the Bread and Butter Thing, now touted as much as a enterprise in green sustainability saving food which would have gone in the bin as one to help struggling families.

Cllr Dulston says he sees “positive signs” and better quality of life in neglected areas, and wants people to feel “Darlington is closer to the opportunities than it’s ever been before”.

He adds: "I think the big thing for us as council leaders is to inspire.

“The last three years have probably been the most transformational the town has had over recent times and I think that’s what people will measure us on.

“We’ve delivered changes at pace and through challenging times, and we promise to continue that transformational journey.

“I think we’ve proved loud and clear over the last three years that Darlington can succeed and it can also exceed.

“The good days are coming back.”

Tomorrow: Labour

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