A sorry day for Darlington raises the spectre of the economic pain to be felt across the region as local authorities respond to the Government's austerity measures.


NOTHING illustrates the council’s grim financial position more than the threat now facing Darlington’s Civic Theatre.

The 103-year-old venue is one of the country’s leading provincial theatres and the jewel in the crown of Darlington Arts.

Council leader John Williams said: “The Civic is a regional treasure.

“People come from miles around to enjoy the shows, not just from Darlington, but from Teesside and North Yorkshire as well.

“In better times we were able to meet the cost of subsidising it – the Civic was a wonderful luxury we could afford.

But the cuts we are facing are unprecedented and it just costs too much.”

The council is preparing to withdraw the subsidy it gives to both the theatre and the town’s Arts Centre. Officials acknowledge that such a drastic step could lead to one, or both, closing.

Officials have not given up hope of finding a buyer for the theatre – but time to clinch a deal is short.

Chief executive Ada Burns said: “We have an excellent relationship with the Arts Council and the various companies that put on productions at the Civic. But we only have a short window of time.”

Originally called the New Hippodrome, the Civic opened for the first time on September 2, 1907.

Its first managing director was Signor Rino Pepi, an Italian quick-change artist and impersonator with a life-long love of theatre, whose ghost is said to still haunt the impressive venue.

In 1966, after a public campaign, Darlington council assumed full financial, administrative and artistic responsibility for the theatre on behalf of the town. The “New Hippodrome” was officially renamed the Darlington Civic Theatre.

Since then the 439-seat capacity venue has been extensively upgraded and underwent a £1.5m revamp in 1990.

The authority said it hoped to sell the Civic as a going concern “with the aspiration that it will fulfil a similar purpose without subsidy”. But the theatre is losing hundreds of thousands a year and any buyer would need a plan to boost box office takings.

And if no white knight can be found the council said: “If this cannot be achieved the proposal is the theatre will close.”

The same fate awaits the Arts Centre, in Vane Terrace, which underwent a multimillion pound refurbishment that saw the creation of a 100- seat studio theatre, a plaza, water sculpture and a gallery a couple of years ago. The venue attracts more than 171,000 visitors a year.

To try to preserve some of the town’s cultural heritage the authority is examining ways to better utilise the Dolphin Centre sports complex.

The centre would become the base for an arts and sports development outreach service and its main hall could be used as a venue for concerts.

The town’s Tourist Information Centre will be converted into an unmanned information point.

■ People turning up to watch last night’s performance at the Civic of Beauty and the Beast, performed by Darlington Operatic Society, were dismayed at the news about the possible theatre closure.

Gemma Fennell, 22, of Darlington, said: “It is very sad.

Even my five-year-old sister is coming here tonight and she is really excited and all that will end. There is nothing else for young people to do here.”

Rachael Fitt, 29, of Darlington, said: “It is the cultural point of the town. I have grown up with the Arts Centre and the Civic, and to lose them would be an absolutely wrong thing for the town.”

Maureen Raw, 58, of Barnard Castle, was attending with friends Wendy Sinclair, 62, of Darlington, Jenny Johnson, of Barnard Castle, and Christine Brass, of Stainton.

She said: “It’s very disappointing.

The amateur dramatics are local people and we all know them and come to support them. It is the only theatre in the area.”

Michael Pallister, 40, who owns the Toni & Guy hair salon in Darlington, said: “It is really ridiculous. There is a good cultural background in Darlington and it is being lost.”

Graham Foster, 46, of Darlington, said: “It is very important because the arts enrich the town and to start cutting them back will affect the quality of life. People are going to have to travel further afield for live arts.”

Stephen and Brenda Bruce, of Darlington, are regular visitors to the Civic. Mr Bruce, 59, said: “It is going to have a knock-on effect with traders around here. I would urge the council to think again.”


UNION members have vowed to fight savage cuts which will see one in ten of Darlington Borough Council’s workforce lose their jobs.

A 90-day statutory consultation period has begun with council staff after leaders announced the loss of more than 400 jobs.

The proposals also include a two-year pay freeze, which will save an additional £1.9m.

Among the staff changes within Darlington Town Hall, the senior management of the council will be reduced from four departments – covering communities, children, resources and chief executive – to three, whose remits will be place, people and resources. Total senior officer posts will be reduced from 22 to 14 – it will save £1m.

Unison members will meet next week to discuss the proposals.

A spokesman said: “These cuts affect a large number of our members and we will be consulting with them on how we respond to this.

“Councillors should be under no illusion. We will fight for our members’ jobs and the services they provide.”

The union has suggested that if the authority’s services are reduced, so should be the number of councillors.

Further changes will be made by restructuring individual departments to save another £500,000.

More use could be made, particularly within backoffice staff, of the Xentrall service – a partnership of Darlington and Stockton borough councils.

Of the 4,874 staff on the council headroll, the cuts will not impact on those in teaching positions.

Council leader John Williams said: “This is not something we have chosen to do and don’t want to do.

“One of the most disturbing aspects of the announcement is the loss of council jobs.

“Our estimates are that in excess of 400 jobs are to go.

That’s a big number.”


THE town’s library service will not escape the shakeup – and its long-term future remains undecided.

Earlier this year the Government made it known that the spread of the internet meant it was now politically expedient to close libraries.

They also reviewed the 50-year-old law that makes it obligatory for local authorities to provide a comprehensive library service.

But users’ fears that Darlington may close its library service altogether have not been realised.

Instead, the council is to instigate a review of the service that will make recommendations based on “an assessment of local needs”.

The review aims to save about a quarter of the libraries budget, which equates to £250,000.

Some councils have sought to cut costs by opening “virtual” libraries, offering ebook downloads.

One other alternative may be the provision of more library access points.

Carmel RC College already provides a book collection and drop-off point for borrowers who are unable to get to other libraries. Books can be reserved and then collected a week later, with no reservation fee.

The libraries review is due to report before the end of the year.


EVEN council grass cutting will be trimmed as part of the wide-ranging review.

As part of a £700,000 environmental economy drive there will be fewer floral displays next summer and the grass will be cut less often. Grounds maintenance will also be reduced.

Although the town will look less colourful officials hope the changes will not have a drastic impact on the council’s highly successful Woodburn Nursery.

During the Nineties the authority invested in its municipal nursery with great success.

The town won in the best overall category in the Northumbria in Bloom competition six times in a row, was a Britain in Bloom winner and was three times a medallist at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Darlington added another floral feather in its cap in 2003 when it was awarded a silver medal at the Royal Horticultural Society Flower Show at Tatton Park, Cheshire.

Woodburn Nursery is now so popular that it is entirely self-financing and will not be affected by the cuts.

Despite the cuts, officials have no plans to introduce fortnightly bin collections.

However, street cleaning standards will be reduced.

The authority will also increase its fees and charges for waste disposal, clinical and trade waste.

In addition, four bowling greens at North Lodge Park, North Park, Eastbourne Park and the Denes have been earmarked for closure.

However, the bowling green in South Park has been spared.

People wanting to spend a penny at East Row toilets will have to pay 20p. Toilets in West Cemetery will be closed, although facilities in the crematorium will remain open. This could save about £50,000.


CHILDREN who catch a free bus to school may have to walk from 2012.

From then only children who live three miles away from their school will qualify for a free lift. The current limit is two miles.

Officials say this will save about £110,000 from the council’s school transportation budget.

Support services for children are also earmarked for review.

Currently, the authority provides a range of services for youngsters, including a pupil referral unit, special educational needs help and psychological support services. As part of the shake-up the authority is proposing to: ● Reduce local educational support to focus mainly on statutory duties while retaining some discretionary services for early years and special needs; ● Review the Early Intervention and Prevention Service for Children and Families to focus only on the most needy and vulnerable; ● Changes to the Early Years Inclusion Service to create a more flexible programme that better meets the needs of children and families.

Together these changes are expected to save more than £3m.

Chief executive Ada Burns explained the changes were partly driven by Government policy: “Schools will have a greater say in the support provision they require.

“We have been talking to our schools for some time.

We envisage providing services in a more targeted way to help the children who have the greatest needs.

“However, it is an on-going review and the service provision is still evolving.”


BUDGETS across a range of transport services will be cut, including some already trimmed back earlier this year.

A range of road safety, training and publicity exercises will be among those reduced to the minimum level required.

They include free cycle and pedestrian courses designed for years six and seven at schools across the borough.

Cutting the two services will save £130,000. It comes on the back of reducing the resources provided to road safety training earlier this year, as well as fewer school crossing patrols.

Funding for subsidised bus routes across Darlington will be reduced by £100,000.

The effect could impact twice on some children with the Home to School budget also being cut – meaning fewer pupils are entitled to free travel to school.

It will also be a double whammy for bus companies, which are also facing a loss of similar Government grants by 2012.

The council will conduct a complete review of the 50 bus routes it subsidises, which attract a £600,000 budget.

When similar cuts to subsidised bus routes in the borough’s rural areas were suggested two years ago, the proposals were later overturned.

Councillor David Lyonette, cabinet member for transport, said: “It has been necessary to propose a reduction in the number of bus services that are supported by the council.

“We are looking to reduce the level of service we provide in terms of road safety, education, training and publicity, but do consider that providing a school crossing patrol service is something that we should protect.”

He added the subsidies would not impact on the services run commercially by Arriva.

The council has also proposed a change in car park charges to save £140,000 from its budget.

Sunday parking charges will be introduced at a flat rate of £1, and the offer of three hours for two will be terminated across town centre car parks.

In addition, the East Street car park will be converted to payand- display as opposed to paying on exit.