VILLAGERS struggling to keep their community centres open have been stunned to hear they are losing vital grants from Darlington Borough Council.

The annual payment has helped management committees run their halls and dates back to the days when they were funded by Durham County Council.

But last week treasurers heard the money from the borough's community education fund was being withdrawn and channelled into projects for children and young people.

Coun John Weighell, chairman of Neasham Parish Council, said it would make a £640-a-year difference to its social centre, the Reading Room.

"This building is 100 years old and needs a lot of upkeep. It provides entertainment for the village and that grant was the only help we received. I understand the money is going to be spent on Darlington's Blitz Bus."

Borough Coun Peter Foster, said: "I have registered a complaint on behalf of Neasham. I told officers that the village had very little else apart from its hall. These places are the heart of any village and are not only used by the elderly."

Coun Doris Jones told the D&S Times: "This is certainly going to cripple community centres and the one at Middleton St George is run mainly for young people."

She said the borough council's bid to become a unitary authority would not have had 100pc support from rural areas if they had realised what was going to happen to them.

"Hard-working volunteers have a struggle to keep these places going," she went on. "I think this is the thin edge of the wedge and the last nail in the coffin for any community spirit whatever."

A council spokeswoman said the decision to re-route the money was taken during budget discussions in March.

"There seems to have been some confusion," she added. "This is a youth service grant for voluntary organisations and - whatever has happened in the past - it now has to be spent on activities and opportunities for young people.

"Organisations can still apply for the money, provided they use it solely for that purpose."