A new programme to improve and transform communities is too “Durham-centric” and should prioritise underinvested communities, a council has been warned. 

Further details of Durham County Council’s new Strategic Place Plans (SPP) were revealed at a County Hall scrutiny meeting on Monday. 

Earlier this year, the local authority outlined its intention to replace its masterplan process, which focuses on regeneration, with a new programme that better involves residents and local stakeholders. 

Council officials say the SPP will “[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.”

The change comes after the previous masterplan process faced criticism from councillors for creating 'wishlists’. 

Durham City, Spennymoor, Shildon and Newton Aycliffe will all benefit from pilot plans. 

Spennymoor town centreSpennymoor town centre (Image: The Northern Echo)

Government pledges to invest £20 million in Spennymoor and lottery funding for Shildon and Newton Aycliffe mean all three areas will be initially prioritised, however, Durham City’s inclusion as part of the SPP was criticised by councillors. 

“We’ve already got a massive investment in Durham City,” said cllr Bill Moist. “Does Durham City really deserve the priority above areas such as East Durham and Chester-le-Street, which seems to be left again waiting in the wings?”

The Independent member for Chester-le-Street South added: “This is a brilliant idea but it’s going in the wrong direction. It’s becoming so Durham-centric again. Durham City is doing alright, and they can suddenly find £2 million to build a new footbridge over the A690. We can’t get anything in Chester-le-Street at all. 

“The rest of the county can’t be put to one side idle while we wait for Durham City to take the majority of the economic, regeneration, planning, and investment. I appreciate you’re looking for other government funding, but Durham City will get millions and the rest of the county is lagging behind. We need to centre this around the 12 main population areas.”

Cllr Moist’s appeal was seconded by Labour’s Alison Batey, who said she has repeatedly urged the local authority to invest in Chester-le-Street and the nearby surrounding villages. 

Cllr Batey, of Pelton ward, said: “What I’m bemused about is this committee six years ago came up with a strategic list of priorities, and one of those town centres we mapped extensively was Chetser-le-Street. To me, that seemed the perfect project and I hope it is given serious consideration moving forward.”

Despite the criticism, council officials said Durham City’s inclusion as part of the pilot is important. Andy Kerr, head of Economic Development, told the meeting: “With the amount of investment going into Durham City, it’s absolutely crucial that we have a unified vision and what it’s spent towards because it helps us shape the private sector investment that’s going in - and it’s obviously our biggest settlement.” 

For cllr Angela Surtees, the new SPP process should consider the impact on wider communities and not just town centres. 

Councillors have called for Chester-le-Street fundingCouncillors have called for Chester-le-Street funding (Image: The Northern Echo)

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“I would love to see one that covers an area rather than a town because I would like to see how the wider impact of a strategic plan will affect the villages around a district centre,” the Labour member said. 

“If you put too much focus on the centre you’re not going to hit all your prioritisation areas. If one more person in Easington says to me, ‘Seaham gets everything’ I could cry. The perception is that because it’s a central, destination town it gets everything, but it doesn’t. That isn’t the truth.”

And in a plea to see immediate action, Cllr Moist added: “It’s a great idea and a step forward, but can we please work on the delivery? It’s just so slow.”