TOURISM bosses have welcomed news that an £8m extension of the world famous National Portrait Gallery could be established in the region.

Director of the London gallery Dr Charles Smith has revealed that Durham is the number one site for a new satellite gallery featuring 20th Century art and an extensive photograph collection.

The development has been hailed by tourism chiefs as further proof that the North-East is on its way to becoming a "centre of culture of Europewide renown".

The cathedral city is the preferred site for a northern outpost of the National Portrait Gallery ahead of Middlesbrough - because it already attracts 1.2m visitors a year.

Dr Smith will meet Durham City Council officials to discuss establishing a partnership next month and will commission a feasibility study.

Funding would come from European and regional development funds and the National Lottery.

He stressed that the plan depends on attracting support from the Government's Department for Culture Media and Sport to pay for the estimated £1m-a-year running costs.

"The project would possibly help us present a history of the last century and is part of our long-term desire to get more of our collection on display outside London," said Dr Smith.

Director of environmental services at Durham City Council, John Jennings, said a city centre site has already been identified but was unwilling to reveal it for commercial reasons.

He said: "We now are the favoured place which is great news. I would stress that our millennium city scheme, which includes building a new theatre and conference centre, has helped place us in a different league."

Director of the Northumbria Tourist Board, Peter Sloyan, said the North-East is becoming a cultural centre of renown across Europe.

"If you look at what is going on in Durham, Gateshead and Newcastle, with things like the Baltic centre and Angel of the North, I think it is fair to say the region is losing its old image as an industrial centre and is being completely redefined.

"It is becoming known as a place of historical and cultural importance, " he added.