County Durham residents will have a greater say on how to improve and transform their communities. 

New measures set to be introduced by Durham County Council involve a shake up of how town centre masterplans are created and delivered. Initial details released show key decisions will involve local residents and stakeholders.

Since 2009, the council has identified current and future development activity for the main retail centres across County Durham through masterplans and regeneration frameworks. Drawn up by local authority officers, and involving consultation feedback, development ideas include repurposing derelict buildings and improving transport infrastructure. 

The process has faced criticism from councillors, with the current masterplans labelled as ‘wishlists’. 

The Northern Echo: Councillors in Chester-le-Street have called for new investment to improve the area following several closures Councillors in Chester-le-Street have called for new investment to improve the area following several closures (Image: Billy Atkinson)

Now, the local authority has revealed how it wants to change the process. It revealed an ambition to “[empower] local communities to be at the heart of shaping the future of their towns and villages, working with local people, businesses and stakeholders to establish shared visions for each place.”

A council report added: “This new approach will ensure that strategic place plans, and the investment and funding bids that they guide, are defined by local communities and targeted directly to the needs of each place.”

A rolling programme of replacing masterplans with strategic place plans will be developed, starting by focusing on Durham City. There will also be pilot reviews in Spennymoor and Shildon/Newton Aycliffe, due to the requirements for new masterplans following the recent £30m government funding.

The council said the changing nature of town centres, including continued pressures on brick and mortar retailing, the shift to a greater emphasis on leisure and entertainment combined with the ongoing challenges of accessibility and connectivity have paved the way for a new programme of strategic place plans.

“This process of local people shaping what they want their community to be in the future will ensure masterplans are not a top-down approach, and by working up from a clearly agreed vision they will provide greater clarity on investment decisions and funding bids, directly aligned to the needs of the place,” the report concluded. 

Cllr Alison Batey, of Pelton division, warned the council has a huge task on its hands to cater for villages as well as town centres, saying better connectivity should be a priority. 

She said: “Chester-le-Street has taken a massive hit. Almost all the banks have left, we have got so many vacant units. We haven’t got a hope in hell for our villages if the towns are struggling. 

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Cllr Bill Moist, Independent member for Chester-le-Street South, was critical of the previous process but welcomed the changes. 

He told council officers: “We have to admit there were no targets, no targeted outcomes, it was a wishlist of what we’d like to do. I hope we’re moving on to locally-decided target outcomes as a way to regenerate all our towns and villages. 

“It is a step in the right direction and we don’t need another talking shop. I’m pleased it’s area-focused and pleased officers understand the top down approach was centred in County Hall. Members should have an input.”