The Darlington Labour party has inherited a town and a council which has changed massively since 2019. 

In the time since it lost the local elections in 2019, the previous Conservative administration steered it through the Covid pandemic and was the recipient of significant sums of government money to improve the town, from the Treasury relocation to plans for a new railway station and high street funding. 

But now, with the Conservatives in the rear view mirror, Labour members have been tasked with maintaining that momentum. 

Managing the council’s finances 


A sudden raft of new investment and projects is unlikely however, for Labour has criticised the Conservatives for the state of the council’s finances it has inherited. Cllr Jonathan Dulston left a parting letter on his desk for Labour’s cllr Steve Harker,  telling him to ‘make good choices’ after highlighting how his party left the authority with £9.5 million more in reserves than Labour in 2019. 

Cllr Dulston added: “As I hand over the leadership of the council I am pleased that the conservatives [sic] leave the local authority with reserves in excess of £23.3 million, £9.5 million more than the £13.8 million left by labour [sic] in 2019.”

Two of Labour’s key manifesto pledges included creating a “better-run council” and to “tackle Darlington Conservatives' £30 million black hole in the council's finances”. Responding to the letter, new Council Leader Steve Harker said: “You’ve not mentioned that your plans include overspending by £7.5m every year. That’s £30m over the next 4 years. So, the reserve of £23m will vanish very quickly. 

“Frankly, it’s a big mess that you’re handing over for someone else to sort out.”

As part of the need to balance the books Labour’s first high profile move was to withdraw funding for two-hours free daytime car parking in the town centre. The decision has received a mixed reaction from shoppers and businesses but the party insisted it was needed to prevent a future financial crash. 

The Northern Echo: Car parking charges will be introduced in Darlington in July Car parking charges will be introduced in Darlington in July (Image: Darlington Council)

Skerningham Garden Village 


Another project that residents will be following the party’s stance on closely is what happens next with plans for the Skerningham Garden Village housing development. 

Up to 1,650 houses and facilities such as a GP surgery and schools could be built on the site to the north of Darlington by 2036, extending to around 4,500 in the future. Campaigners have long opposed the plans though, which they say will have a detrimental impact on nearby wildlife and green space. 

A bid to safeguard land near Skerningham Woodland received a boost earlier this year when councillors were told it had been ‘saved’ from felling as part of the proposed garden village development. The council pledged to invest in the woodland to make it more accessible for residents, but campaigners fear a new access road will cut through the area. 

The latest design code for the development stated that a new distributor road between the A167 and A1150 (Whinfield Road) would be built to provide access for the thousands of potential homes, but campaigners fear a new access road will cut through the area. 

As a result, the design code was halted earlier this year after the council agreed to a further consultation, as it “fell short on some key objectives” for nearby residents. That decision was made by the previous Conservative Council and Labour is expected to release details on the next steps soon.

The Northern Echo: The Skerningham Garden Village would be a significant extension to DarlingtonThe Skerningham Garden Village would be a significant extension to Darlington (Image: The Northern Echo)

Town centre/ Northgate regeneration


It has been rumoured for several years, but earlier this year, work finally began to progress on demolishing Northgate House - the dilapidated high-rise building which towers over the roundabout. 

Plans to transform the area with dozens of new homes and flats have been devised for buildings in Gladstone Street and Kendrew Street. The council revealed it will obtain the buildings through negotiated acquisitions with current landowners but also Compulsory Purchase Orders. 

Darlington was allocated £22m from the Government's Towns Fund in 2020, about half of which will go to Northgate, but the initial plans were devised in partnership with the Conservative administration. Whether that will change given the new Labour leadership remains to be seen. 

The Northern Echo: The Northgate area of Darlington is in line for regeneration The Northgate area of Darlington is in line for regeneration (Image: The Northern Echo)

Football stadium 


The Quakers have identified the Skerningham and Faverdale areas as potential locations for the new stadium, which could include additional sports, retail and hospitality facilities. The club has previously spoken on record about the support from the previous Conservative council but said the plans could change if a new party took over power. 

Speaking in April, managing director David Johnston said: “We still have the full political support, however the council elections are coming up, and if the current council with a Tory-led majority was to remain in force then it’s best for the football club because the Local Plan that’s been out for consultation allocates the land use for the next 25 years, that will not change,” 

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“If, however, there’s a change in control of power we may see a different leadership want to tweak the plan, it’s highly unlikely they will want to change it because it wasn’t called in by the inspector, and the land allocation has been set and to challenge that would mean a massive legal process which will cost millions of pounds. However, we may see some fine tuning of the Local Plan to look at housing numbers, land allocations to make it more acceptable for a different leadership. 

“We have to wait until those elections are through then we work with the council on pushing ahead, securing the land, and working with the developers to go forward with the stadium.”

There is not expected to be any drastic changes to the Local Plan despite the new administration however. Speaking before the election in February, cllr Steve Harker said: “Unless there is significant change to what is happening, council’s do not have the opportunity to make significant changes to the Local Plan without justification. My understanding is that the local authority is not able to make significant changes to the Local Plan.”

The Northern Echo: Darlington FC hopes to build a new purpose-built site, an upgrade from the current facility at Blackwell Meadows Darlington FC hopes to build a new purpose-built site, an upgrade from the current facility at Blackwell Meadows (Image: The Northern Echo)