COUNCIL bosses have cleared the final hurdle in their efforts to bring about the transformation of a North-East town centre.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that it had given the go-ahead for unpopular changes to Darlington's High Row.

It means the borough council is free to press ahead with the demolition of the area's three-tiered steps, railings and balustrades.

The Joseph Pease statue - unveiled in 1875 as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Darlington and Stockton railway - will also be dismantled. The statue will be re-erected in a new spot, a few metres away from its present location.

The developments are part of the authority's £6.5m "pedestrian heart" scheme, which will get under way next month.

A tendering process will begin in May, with companies hoping to carry out the work asked to submit their proposals to the council.

Preliminary work on the edge of town - creating a bus lane on St Cuthbert's Way - has already started, but the main developments in the centre will not begin until the summer.

The entire project is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2007.

The alterations to High Row were severely criticised by Darlington Civic Trust and Conservative councillors, with the heritage group collecting 4,635 signatures on a petition opposing the scheme.

The trust conceded defeat in its battle last month, saying the council had "no appreciation of art or aesthetics, or the importance of local history to local people".

But council leader Councillor John Williams said last night: "This is great news for Darlington and means we can now press ahead with our plans to improve the town centre."

Meanwhile, work has started on the redevelopment of the former Dressers stationery shop in High Row.

The shop is being converted into a branch of Waterstone's booksellers.