AMBITIOUS plans to revitalise a 137-year-old co-operative society, creating much-needed jobs in a County Durham dale, have been revealed by one of Britain's last independent groups.

The revamp will be sparked off this month by the closure of the drapery shop, which has served customers of Stanhope and Weardale Co-operative Society for more than 50 years, and reopening it as an off-licence.

Other moves are planned by directors of the Cumbrian-based Penrith Co-operative Society, which merged with the Weardale society earlier this year. They include extending opening hours and introducing a more competitive range of retail goods at three of its stores in the dale.

Initially, an extra two full-time and four casual staff will be taken on to run the off-licence.

But, as new opening hours - from 8am to 8pm - are introduced shortly at the society's stores at Stanhope, Frosterley and St John's Chapel, further staff will be needed.

The 112-year-old Penrith Co-op, which is one of the last independent societies in the UK, also has plans to extend at least one of its five shops in Weardale.

The society's chief retail executive, John Mills, said yesterday: "The Stanhope shop will be the first off-licence in its own right that we have in the whole society and we hope to open it in the next three weeks.

"Sadly, the old drapery shop, with a very limited range of clothing, was well past its sell-by date."

Mr Mills said, although they were only creating a handful of jobs initially, the society was demonstrating its confidence in the future regeneration of Weardale, which has seen the loss of more than 220 jobs in the cement and steel industries this year.

This would mean creating more jobs, he said.

"We believe the extended hours and providing a wider and more competitive range of products at our three principal shops will help customers plan their shopping more conveniently," said Mr Mills.

When the Penrith and Weardale societies merged in June, the Cumbrian society had registered an annual turnover of £9m with profits of about £120,000 at its six stores.

In contrast, Stanhope and Weardale had a turnover of just £1.2m and had been operating at a loss for several years.

Two directors from Weardale, Ivan Jones and Alan Cail, have joined the Penrith board