WHEN it came to producing a bold vision for the regeneration of communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Durham County Council was determined that it should be shaped by the views of local people.

In October and November, online consultation events were held by the authority’s 14 Area Action Partnerships to gather feedback on challenges and opportunities in communities across the county.

That extensive consultation produced more than 1,000 comments, and they have been at the heart of the newly approved Towns and Villages Investment Plan, and wider Towns and Villages Strategy.

The plan commits £20m to the county’s most disadvantaged communities between 2021 and 2024 and, following the positive response from the consultation, a further £5m has been agreed.

Councillor Carl Marshall, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economic regeneration, said: “This is about transforming our towns and villages by ensuring everything we, and our partners do, works together to improve our communities, and makes a difference to people’s lives.”

Councillor Marshall cited the example of the support the council has provided at Sacriston – to enable the disused Co-operative Buildings to be brought back into use for the benefit of the community – as an illustration of the effectiveness of the council’s approach.

“We are responding to those issues our residents tell us matter to them, by creating more jobs, improving neighbourhoods, regenerating our town centres, developing new housing, and strengthening transport links,” he added.

“What we have done and will continue to do through Towns and Villages is not just about providing financial support to projects, as important as that may be. It is about making sure that what we do ties in with the investment of others, fills any gaps and gets the best return for our communities.”

The plan aims to maximise more than £750m of investment already committed across County Durham, by realigning existing budgets, alongside the extra money, and working with partners to help communities recover from the pandemic as quickly as possible.

The council’s Towns and Villages vision comes under five themes: Strategic Investments, Housing and Community; Environment and Health; Built Environment; and Transport and Connectivity. And the strategy has already been the catalyst to unlocking significant regeneration projects.

It also includes: Section 106 planning agreements; local transport programmes; community housing investments; a recognition of the needs of the county’s rural communities; addressing the Climate Change Emergency; and supporting COVID-19 resilience and recovery.

Under the Towns and Villages Investment Plan, each of the council’s 14 Area Action Partnerships will receive funding of £300,000 to deliver projects identified as priorities within their own communities.

The Investment Plan also provides a focus for:

  • Business and retail – projects such as ‘Digital High Street’, offering town centre wi-fi in Bishop Auckland and Stanley, are helping businesses become more resilient to changing economic conditions.
  • Neighbourhood Retail Parades – activity is already taking place in Langley Moor, Willington, and Trimdon to recognise the importance of these areas, with opportunities in other areas such as Bearpark and West Cornforth also being considered.
  • Employment – investment in strategic employment sites will ensure more, and better, jobs opportunities.
  • Empty buildings – work has taken place in communities such as Sacriston, Seaham, Spennymoor, and Newton Aycliffe to bring empty buildings back into use.
  • Walking and cycling – improving these routes is helping to support connectivity, the environment, and health opportunities. Schemes have been implemented in Murton, Wingate, Trimdon, and Coxhoe.
  • Housing – work to deal with empty properties and pockets of low demand has taken place through the Horden Masterplan, while proposals for New Kyo; Coundon Grange; Blackhall Colliery South; Thickley; Deneside East; and Stanley Hall West are also being considered.
  • Housing need – the council’s own house-building aims to meet need, while projects such as Canney Communities, will provide housing for disabled young adults and their families.

Amy Harhoff, Durham County Council’s corporate director for regeneration, economy and growth, said: “I am incredibly proud of how the council, with our partners, have taken an innovative approach to development and investment. Aligning our priorities and working collaboratively with the community.

“Having worked in local government across the country, I can honestly say our approach through Towns and Villages is best practice in creating investment and opportunity.

“This is about the future, and ensuring we are in the best possible position to make our county a great place to live, work and visit. I am delighted to be part of the programme and excited to see the many fantastic projects and initiatives we have coming up.”