AN independent councillor is to challenge a senior member of the Cabinet at the forthcoming General Election.

Councillor Watts Stelling, who sits on Derwentside District Council and Durham County Council, will stand as an independent candidate against MP Hilary Armstrong for the North-West Durham seat.

The Government's Chief Whip has held the seat since 1987 and is defending a majority of more than 16,000.

Coun Stelling, a 53-year-old former analytical chemist, from Leadgate, near Consett, said becoming an MP had been his aim since he entered politics in 1999.

He said: "It is a very exciting time in my political career and I cannot wait for the starting gun to go off when the election is called."

In 2001, he won the safe Labour seat of Leadgate and Medomsley on Durham County Council, which was held by retiring council leader Don Robson, by five votes.

He said his main policies will be to reduce crime, improve health services and increase employment by attracting long-term invest- ment.

However, he will face an uphill struggle to defeat an MP who, at the 2001 General Election, took more than 62 per cent of the vote.

Ms Armstrong said: "Anyone is entitled to stand in the election, whenever it comes. I will be standing on Labour's record of real achievement."