DAVID CAMERON swept through Darlington yesterday with a breezy speech about the greater powers his Government has given to local people.

He spoke for about 20 quickfire minutes to 150 local activists in the sun-filled atrium of St Aidan’s Academy ahead of May 5’s local elections.

He also urged people to vote no in the same day’s referendum on the Alternative Vote.

“I know there are distractions,” he said. “There’s the weather, there’s the wedding, but we have to stay focused.

There are 15 crucial days for Darlington and the people of our country.”

Following the theme of his article in The Northern Echo yesterday, he argued that the Conservatives were the party that was handing new powers to local councils to take over the running of post offices and economic regeneration.

The Conservatives were also the party of people power, he said, ordering councils to put information online, so that voters could see details of salaries and expenses.

Afterwards, he was asked whether the threat to libraries in North Yorkshire, to the arts in Darlington and to leisure centres in County Durham were the real face of Conservative cuts that voters would take into consideration on May 5.

“People in the North-East are very savvy, very wise,” he said. “They know we have the biggest budget deficit in Europe and they know that any government would have to be making cuts.

“The question, then, is which councils are cutting out waste and inefficiencies rather than cutting frontline services.

The truth is that Labour councils are rushing to cut the frontline, hoping they can blame it on the Government. I think voters in the North-East will see through that.”

It is nearly a year since The Northern Echo had a very tetchy encounter with Mr Cameron during the General Election campaign, after he had singled out the North- East as one of the regions too reliant on the public sector.

Yesterday, he appeared much more at ease. “The economy is rebalancing,” he insisted.

“In the North-East, you are seeing a growth in exports, manufacturing and the private sector and that’s encouraging.

“Obviously, it is difficult, because rebalancing the economy means growth in the private sector when there are inevitably reductions in public spending.

“Through Enterprise Zones, the Regional Growth Fund (RGF), tax reductions and specific decisions here in the North-East, like the Intercity Express Programme which will bring hundreds of jobs to the cradle of the railways, we are making a difference.”

When it was pointed out that the £57m awarded to the North-East from the RGF was only a third of the annual budget of the disappearing development agency One North East, meaning there was less support reaching the region, he replied: “I don’t accept that. Any government would have to be reducing public spending. What we are actually doing is big things, which are specifically targeted at areas that have been reliant on the public sector.”

The forthcoming Enterprise Zones – one in the Tees Valley, another on Tyneside – are one of those big things.

“Here in the North-East, Enterprise Zones were quite successful in the Eighties,” he said. “In some parts of the country, there was criticism that they displaced business, so we are trying to learn the lessons to make sure this isn’t about displacement but about new business activity.”

Mr Cameron was approached by 12-year-old trombonist Daniel Dennis, wearing a blue rosette, whose father, Philip, is a candidate in Eaglescliffe.

Daniel was worried about potential cuts in the Tees Valley Music Service, and the PM asked the youngster to send him some information about the service’s support for young musicians.

Following the St Aidan’s meeting, The Northern Echo understands that Mr Cameron visited Darlington Memorial Hospital to hear medical staffs’ concerns about the controversial NHS reforms.