DURHAM County Council has been ranked as one of the top performing local authorities in the country by a Government watchdog.

The Audit Commission, which independently assesses and compares the performance of councils across the country, has rated Durham as an "excellent" council.

Since the last review 18 months ago rated the council as "good", independent inspections of its education, social care services and support for people with learning disabilities have highlighted the quality of its services.

Last December, an interim review confirmed it was making progress and its rate of improvement was such that the Audit Commission agreed to bring forward its next inspection by a year.

Frances Done, of the Audit Commission, said: "Durham County Council has achieved good improvement in the educational attainment of young people, enhanced the social care provision for older people and significantly improved recycling levels by focusing on its declared priorities and allocating resources to support delivery."

Council leader Ken Manton, who visited council offices to deliver the commission's verdict, said: "I am absolutely delighted with this news.

" The most satisfying aspect for me is that this inspection has rated us highly for the quality of local services we provide and our focus on what needs to be done to make County Durham a better place."