A £25m investment in the regeneration of County Durham’s most disadvantaged communities has been given the go-ahead. PETER BARRON assesses the impact of Durham County Council’s Towns and Villages Investment Plan

MINER’S daughter Heather Liddle still lives in the street where she was born – within a stone’s throw of the old Co-operative Buildings that were at the heart of daily life in the proud pit village of Sacriston.

Having come into the world in her grandparents’ house, at number 32 Victoria Street, Heather now lives at number 17. “I never moved far,” she laughs. “It must be where I’m meant to be.”

Now 48, Heather is playing a leading role in a project to breathe new life into the village through the resurrection of those Co-operative Buildings that formed a familiar backdrop to her childhood.

She recalls the thrill of going there with her mother to buy a ‘posh’ checked jacket, with corduroy patches, for her sixth birthday. “I’d always dreamed of having a hacking jacket like equestrian people,” she recalls. “When I wore it for school, I felt the bee’s knees.”

Dating back to 1870, the Co-operative Buildings once featured a vibrant collection of businesses –greengrocer, sweetshop, butcher, dairy, haberdashery, pease pudding shed, stable block, and more – but, over the years, the site fell derelict.

An important part of Sacriston’s heritage might have been razed to the ground but, instead, it has been given a bright future through a shared vision between Durham County Council and the local community.

The site was acquired by the council and, in 2019, leased to The Sacriston Enterprise Workshops Community Interest Company (CIC), with local people firmly in the driving seat.

Since then, the aim has been to sensitively restore the buildings to their former glory, as a hub of social enterprises, with tangible community benefits. And the county council has now given the vision a major boost, with a £200,000 grant from the Towns and Villages Investment Plan.

The money has enabled the CIC to appoint architects to design new shop frontages, in keeping with the buildings’ Victorian heritage. It will also pay for repairs to the main building, the demolition of an unsafe section, asbestos surveys, and open doors to match funding. Meanwhile, a further £170,000 has been allocated for a targeted business improvement scheme.

The threat to the former Co-operative site was one of the reasons Heather became Sacriston’s county councillor eight years ago, and she’s clear about the importance of the local authority’s backing.

“Without the county council’s financial support, we’d still be wondering how to get started,” she says. “It’s given us a foundation to build on, and that’s been crucial.”

Spaces are being developed for other micro-businesses, but existing tenants are:

  • Woodshed Workshops – a CIC providing woodworking skills for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Live Well North East – a CIC offering well-being services for children, young people, and adults.
  • RecycLD – an organisation delivering projects and contracts, based around skills development and employability, for people with complex needs.
  • Sacriston Youth Project – which has been awarded extended two-year sponsorship by JD Sports, after a successful pilot year.

Heather, who is founder and director of Sacriston Youth Project, is proud of how it has worked in partnership with other groups during the pandemic. As well as providing fun sessions for youngsters over Zoom, and one-to-one support for families, it also runs a foodbank.

“It’s been a terrible time, but good things have also come out of Covid,” she insists.

The positives include residents, who found themselves out of work, volunteering to deliver prescriptions and hot food. Since March, 30 people have achieved food safety qualifications through the CIC, while fire safety training has also been available.

Live Well North East was established in 2018, when mum-of-three, Emma Pattison, from neighbouring Framwellgate Moor, teamed up with Sacriston fitness and wellbeing coach, Debra Forth.

“We saw gaps in community wellbeing services, and decided to fill them,” says Emma.

Live Well North East now occupies the former stable block, and Emma describes the support through the Towns and Villages Investment Plan as pivotal.

“The council has been amazing,” she says. “They bought into the vision of creating a community hub, and it couldn’t have happened without their support.

“We’re bringing community buildings back to life, by working with the community, for the benefit of the community – and that’s just brilliant.”

Nathan Hopkins, managing director of Woodshed Workshop, is equally as passionate. “The old Co-operative movement set out to provide cradle to grave services, and we are unintentionally replicating that,” says Nathan.

Pre-pandemic, Woodshed Workshops provided drop-in sessions: guiding young and old in making products, such as planters, jigsaws, cupboards, and toolboxes. Now, a retail space has been added in what was once a greengrocer’s.

Woodshed Workshops has also played its part in the community response during lockdown, including distributing craft-making kits to relieve boredom and boost mental health.

“It’s sad when communities lose their pathways to the past, but this is a model where historic links can be maintained in a sustainable way that benefits the community,” says Nathan.

“It’s nice to have a county council that sees the value in what we are doing – their financial support has been invaluable. The target is to fill every space, so the site not only has a bigger community impact, but becomes a visitor attraction.”

For Heather Liddle, it’s an opportunity to honour the past, while building a better future for Sacriston, the village where she was born, and where her dad, Alan Thompson, worked down the pit, managed the British Legion, ran the jazz band, and served on the parish council.

“The traffic lights up at the crossroads are there because he campaigned for them when I was little,” she proudly points out.

Heather knows it could easily have gone either way when Sacriston’s old Co-operative buildings reached the crossroads and faced demolition. Thankfully, the green light has been given to head in an altogether more positive direction.