A NEW phase in the ambitious 20-year project to exploit Durham City's potential was launched yesterday.

Earlier in the year, a steering group produced its first report on its Vision for Durham.

Yesterday, those initial findings and recommendations were brought into sharper focus when the Durham Steering Group, comprising Durham City Council, Durham County Council, One NorthEast, the University of Durham and the Dean and Chapter, met to select the organisation which will take the initiative forward.

The consultancy chosen to lead phase two and oversee the development masterplan for the next 20 years or more is to be chosen from a shortlist of three.

In the meantime, work will be done on strengthening the town centre management, encouraging local enterprise and developing an innovative programme of fairs and festivals.

The foundations for change were laid at the beginning of the year when a series of studies examined Durham's strengths and weaknesses in the areas of tourism, leisure and retailing.

The main conclusion was that Durham, which aspires to rank alongside Bath, York and Chester, was failing to exploit its unique potential.

Project director Meg Abdy, of The Chambers, a strategic retail and leisure consultancy, said: "Durham has unique assets - its historic attractions, a stunning medieval townscape, its reputation as a seat of learning and the diversity and talents of its people.

"It's the real thing but, at present, the full potential of those assets is not being realised.''

Durham City Council leader Sue Pitts said: "This project provides interesting and exciting prospects for Durham City. The project will enable Durham to serve the interests of its population and of the wider region."