PARISH councillors are counting on the discovery of long lost deeds to help resolve a land row and secure a play area for village children.

But after receiving a copy of the vital document, Dene Valley Parish Council faces a race against time to prove its claim to the site, where building work is due to start early next month.

The council has claimed that land in Auckland Park, where Hall Construction, of Rushyford, has planning permission for 40 houses, was left in trust to residents by trustees of the village colliery's welfare scheme and can only be used for recreation purposes.

Now it says that a copy of a 70-year-old conveyance document, unearthed by the Church Commissioners last month, could be its 'trump card' in persuading the Charity Commission to support its claim by appointing it trustees for the land near William Street.

But it will also need to convince the Land Registry, which in 2003 accepted a claim of 'squatters rights' over part of the site and registered it to a private individual without, the parish claims, consulting them or the Wear Valley District authority.

Hall Construction's managing director Stephen Hall said that he was planning to start work on new homes in three weeks' time.

He said: "We are the owners of the site and are not trying to do anything illegal. We bought it from somebody else and are relying on our solicitors to advise us."

Coun Chris Foote Wood said: "The copy of the original sale deeds is absolutely crucial to our efforts. It is our trump card. They show that two acres of land was purchased for community recreation 70 years ago.

"The situation is urgent. It is essential we establish the legal ownership before any houses are built." He added: "It is quite clear from the documents that it was the intention that the land would be used solely for recreation purposes in perpetuity and there are specific covenants in the deeds which state that clearly."

Charity Commission spokeswoman Sarah Jane Digby said the commission had received a copy of the document which it needs to consider. She said: "Until we have considered all relevant information and established the facts it would be inappropriate to speculate on possible outcomes."

Coun Foote Wood is appealing for information about the trustees of the Auckland Park Colliery Welfare Scheme and is also keen to trace records of the Miners Welfare Fund, the Miners Welfare Committee and the Durham District Welfare Committee from 1935 onwards. Call him on (01388) 605181.