RESEARCHERS are facing abuse on the streets of Darlington due to the strength of feeling over a £40,000 survey, according to a leaked council memo.

Darlington Borough Council’s chief executive Ada Burns claimed a recent article by The Northern Echo had prompted anger as she defended a community survey in a missive sent to all councillors recently.

In her email, she said a researcher had been threatened and results of the survey could be compromised after the Echo revealed it was being carried out by NWA Research, a company led by Stockton Labour councillors Norma and David Wilburn.

The chief executive’s message said there was “no basis to fear” the survey being directed to any political agenda but suggested the Echo's report could skew responses to the survey.

Ms Burns said a researcher was removed from one ward “following two bad experiences with residents as a consequence of the article", adding: “I regret that researchers may face intimidation or abuse…sadly there is a significant risk that a number of responses gathered through the face to face method will be influenced by the article.

Her email also mistakenly included private correspondence to Ms Burns from Neil Bowerbank, the authority's head of strategy, performance and communications.

His message, which also went to all Darlington councillors, said that the authority should continue the survey and "mitigate against the consequences of the article" but also accused Cllr Heather Scott, the town's Conservative leader, of making "politically motivated" comments to the Echo and suggested drawing her attention to "the potential implications" of her statement, which highlighted public concerns over the council's procurement process in this instance.

Ms Burns has since issued an apology to Cllr Scott, who stood by her comments to the press and said she would raise questions about the survey at an upcoming scrutiny committee meeting.

Cllr Scott, who was not responsible for leaking Ms Burns’ email, added: “I was surprised to receive that email and it was unfortunate that the council officer’s email was put into the public arena.

“I reserve the right to raise issues that are given to me by members of the public who I represent – it is freedom of speech and I disagree that the survey has been compromised."

Ada Burns, chief executive of Darlington Borough Council, said: “I wrote to all members following a Northern Echo article that called into question the independence of a market research company contracted to carry out the community survey, because of the political roles of its owners.

“The market research company was contracted under normal Council rules for procurement. I sought to reassure members that there is no political involvement in procurement processes and that, as a company registered under the stringent requirements of professional bodies for market research, NWA is carrying out the survey impartially.

“The community survey is an important tool, used by most councils, to ensure that future planning takes into account residents’ priorities, experience and aspirations. The last survey was carried out in 2013. Since then, there have been many service changes, as the Council has faced substantial reductions in its income from Government.”