LABOUR has increased its control of Durham County Council despite suffering the shock loss of former leader Don Robson's seat.

Mr Robson, 65, who brought county cricket to Durham, stood down before the election, but Labour was hoping Eric Turner, a well-known Derwentside district councillor, would hold the Leadgate and Medomsley division.

But Watts Stelling, an Independent who also serves on the district council, won the seat by just five votes.

Bill Stockdale, leader of the Independent group on Derwentside District Council, said: "We are absolutely delighted. This seat was a safe Labour seat and winning it is a major scalp for us.''

Labour claimed 53 of the 61 seats - one more than it had before the election - losing three and gaining four on the way.

The Liberal Democrats doubled their previous total of two seats, the Conservatives retained their two in Teesdale, while the Independents' win in Leadgate and Medomsley was tempered by the loss of four seats, giving them just two members on the new council.

Shildon North-East, held for many years by well-known Independent Tony Moore, who died of a heart attack in March, fell to Labour.

The Liberal Democrats won their two new seats from Labour in Durham City - Belmont and Newton Hall - where Labour's record running the city council has been an issue.

But Independent Tony Martin, better known as the Durham Cobbler, failed to win Gilesgate from Labour.

Mr Martin, who has highlighted allegations about the city council in his shop window and on his website, lost by 444 votes to Peter Thompson in the Labour stronghold, finishing ahead of Liberal Democrat, Tory and Green candidates.

Mr Martin said: "It was a very respectable result and it vindicates what I have been doing.

"Labour put a hell of a lot into their campaign. They were very worried I would get in."

Labour also gained Horden and Evenwood from the Independents.

The turnout, 57.8 per cent, was below the low General Election response, and compared with 67.8 per cent for the county elections in 1997.

Don Ross, the Labour cabinet member who held Framwellgate Moor in Durham, said he was pleased with his party's performance.

"I think it mirrors what has happened nationally.''