THE out-going chief executive of Darlington Borough Council has celebrated the authority being rated one of the country's finest and insisted it was in good shape for the future.

Barry Keel, who left the council yesterday after eight years, said he was delighted at the "excellent" rating from the Audit Commission.

The authority had successfully appealed against a previous "good" verdict from the inspection body.

The new rating means the council will have fewer inspections and can also free up resources, as fewer staff will be involved in inspection work.

Mr Keel said yesterday: "This is an authority that started from scratch in 1997 after we split from Durham County Council and it's taken some doing to get to this position. There are some really big authorities across the country who can't achieve this."

He said the success had been down to the teamwork of officers and councillors.

Eight years ago the council took over services from Durham County Council and building up a workforce of 4,500 people.

After overseeing the creation of the authority, Mr Keel is adamant that a series of developments taking shape across Darlington will help transform its fortunes.

He said the controversial £6.5m "pedestrian heart" scheme, which has attracted opposition from heritage campaigners over alterations to High Row, would eventually be viewed as a positive move.

"When I was director of development at Hartlepool Borough Council, I couldn't go out without people haranguing me over the town centre square development while it was going on," he said.

"But once it was finished, I couldn't go out without people congratulating us on it. I think it'll be the same in Darlington - people will look and say, 'that's really good'."

Mr Keel also hailed the £60m West Park community village being developed at Faverdale as "one of the best developments this council has been associated with".

He said: "What we once had was an old tip, with high levels of pollution, at a key entrance to the town and nobody could crack it.

"But then we got a local developer in, Tony Cooper, who thought, 'this is my home town, I'm going to do something about this'."

Mr Keel admitted that enhancing standards of education in the borough would also be one of the council's biggest challenges in future years.

"We have got to get more achievement in education. It is okay for the region at present, but this region is the worst performer in the country," he said.

"We're average nationally, and average nationally is not good enough for my kids, so why should it be good enough for the children of Darlington?"