Nick Brewster, formerly chairman of Darlington for Culture, reflects on what will happen now Darlington Borough Council has decided to press ahead with the deepest cuts to services in a generation

WHEN I was a student, I used to catch a train from London to the North-East of England. That journey took me through Darlington Station where, on a plinth on the platform, stood the Locomotion, George Stephenson’s famous locomotive which hauled the first passenger train in the world, from Stockton to Darlington.

I was awed to glimpse this wonderful example pioneering, North-East engineering, and fully appreciated the sense of civic pride which the people of Darlington must have felt to have been at the cradle of the industrial revolution.

Today, nearly 50 years later, I live in Darlington. When I arrive by train now I am met by a sign that tells me that Darlington is the “Home of Lingfield Point”. Enquiries leave me to understand that Lingfield Point is an office complex on the edge of town. What has happened in the intervening 50 years? What has happened to our civic pride?

I ask this question because Darlington seems to be set on a course designed to destroy its history, its heritage and its culture. A few days ago, I and two hundred other residents protested outside the Town Hall as the Borough Council voted to close the town’s beautiful public library in Crown Street. Opened in 1884 and built with money left to the town by Edward Pease of the famous Quaker family of that name who lived in Darlington, this fine Flemish Renaissance style library will be history, its facilities and assets broken up and there are no plans, as yet, to house the art collection nor the vast number of historic and significant books, papers and journals currently held in the basements stacks.

The council plans to dispose of the existing library and has earmarked £300,000 for its eventual sale, although it does say that it would welcome its continuing use as a community building. But this ignores the covenant on the building. Although the original seems to have been lost, in 1983 the then Assistant Borough Solicitor made a statutory declaration to the existence a covenant which stipulates that the building be used only as a library. The Council now claim that this was probably a “misdescription”. Really?

Alas, now a “library” of sorts is to be shoe horned into the brutalist Dolphin Centre, a modern concrete leisure facility, and be hidden behind the children’s soft play area and the squash courts. How many former users of the wonderful spaces of the Crown Street building with its arched ceilings and elaborate tracery will transfer to the Dolphin Centre or even find where the new library is. And heaven forbid if you want to find the Local Studies Centre!

And remember, this is meant to be the main and only library in the town, a town of nearly 100,000 people. We are told that there will be three front line members of staff, reducing to two at less busy times and on occasion only one – and this is plenty.

Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service” that “meets the requirements of local people within available resources”. The Council will argue that the financial cuts imposed first by the Coalition government and then by the present Conservatives make the cuts to the library service in Darlington inevitable. But the Council did make a choice; central government did not tell them to close the library; it was a political decision to close it despite the statutory obligation to provide a comprehensive service. The courts have been reluctant to specify what constitutes a comprehensive library service, but Darlington – with its plan for a skeletal service – must be getting very close to what is unacceptable and bordering on the illegal.

What is all the more surprising is that the Dolphin Centre – the Council’s central leisure facility and swimming pool and into which the residue of the current library will be sited – is seemingly protected by this Council, despite there being no legal duty to provide such services. You might have thought that the Council would cut non-statutory services before those it is obliged by law to provide but not in Darlington. Further, it is not as though Darlington has no other leisure facilities. A casual google search will find 17 gyms and/or leisure centres within a 10 mile radius of Darlington, and a dozen within the town’s boundaries; furthermore, there are three other swimming pools in the town, others within ten miles. So why, you might ask yourself, does the Council decide to cut the library service? We only have one library!

But Darlington has “form” when it comes to getting rid of cultural assets. Four years ago, the council closed the town’s much loved Arts Centre, now being turned into expensive retirement homes. And the town’s beautiful covered market and old town hall, finished in 1864 and well restored in 1978, is to be sold off.

Darlington used to be a proud town, expressed through its confidence in its fine public buildings, its commitment to art, culture and its own important industrial heritage. I am afraid no more.