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, an improvement on its 'good' performance 18 months ago.

Since that last review, independent inspections of the council's education, and social care services and support for people with learning disabilities have highlighted the quality of its services.

Last December, an interim review of the council's progress 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: "Improving services for local people is at the heart of what local government is about.

"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 visited council offices to deliver the commission's verdict. He said: "I am absolutely delighted with this news and what it means for the county.

" We provide 86 per cent of council services by value in County Durham and when people pay their council tax, they can be confident that the money that comes our way is being spent by one of the best councils in the country.

"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.

"It has also highlighted areas where we need to improve further, and we will learn from, and build upon, this assessment, so that we get even better."

Kingsley Smith, the council's chief executive said: "This is tremendous news for County Durham and the people who work for the county council.

"Each and every one of our employees has had a hand in this success and I am delighted that their dedication to serving local people has been acknowledged in this way."