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Business

Guest contributor: Angela Howey

Regeneration: On track for change

As the cradle of the railway, Darlington was a major catalytic force in driving a new era of employment and economic growth nearly 200 years ago. So it’s rather fitting then, as the town prepares to mark the bicentenary of its rail heritage in 2025, that it stands at the front of the queue on a new Government platform aimed at introducing a fresh age of prosperity. With £23.3 million secured from the Towns Fund, work is being rolled out to create and attract more jobs, bolster existing skills and refresh Darlington’s gateways – including its mainline railway station that remains a crucial national connection hub. Described as a “cornerstone” of the Government’s much–vaunted ‘levelling–up’ agenda, Downing  Street says the Towns Fund will “help reshape our towns and cities into places where businesses and communities can thrive… to ensure nobody is left without hope or opportunity”. And in a world where the cost of living crisis continues, it represents a welcome start on a journey towards fresh growth and success.

 

A gateway to the future

‘Levelling–up’ has long been a flagship policy of the Government, and was also a key focus of last month’s Queen’s Speech. A high-profile initiative within the drive has been the Towns Fund, a £3.6 billion pot offered to an initial 100 local authorities, which were asked to bid with an economic and social growth plan worthy of investment. Among the very first to win funding was Darlington, which has secured £23.3 million to boost jobs and employment skills, and improve the town’s key gateways. Here, Angela Howey, chair of Darlington’s Towns Fund board, explains how it plans to lay the foundations for future success by building on past glories.

When we were invited to bid for Towns Fund cash, we knew this was a once–in–a–generation opportunity to make deep-rooted changes in Darlington – to regenerate key parts of the town, create economic opportunities for people young and old, and build relationships with new partners.

Darlington has all the components for success – excellent transport links, a young and educated population and a number of major employers – but the funding will provide the impetus for some strategic, long-term upgrades.

The Towns Fund board, made up of people from across the public and private sectors, had the kernel of an idea to focus on ‘gateways’ in the initial Town Investment Plan (TIP).

Darlington’s TIP is, in part, inspired by a journey a visitor might make, connecting its two railway stations via a route through the town centre.

First, there should be a sense of arrival at the main station, before encountering a ‘pearl string’ of heritage, independent retail, culture and learning through the town centre, then heading up into the Railway Heritage Quarter.

There’s a strong focus on skills, through investment in a new T-levels programme at Darlington College, and an adult skills centre in a purpose-built facility in the landmark Northern Echo building, the purchase of which we’ve just completed.

We’re also looking to create a town centre that’s vibrant, a place people want to visit and support the shops, bars and cafes that are the backbone of our retail economy.

And at the heart of the plans are our heritage assets, bringing historic buildings back into public ownership and giving them a new purpose, and making connections with the work being done to prepare for the 2025 bicentenary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

It’s a wide-ranging programme but one I’m confident is built of strong elements that tie together in support of each other and other ongoing projects, which include the major upgrade of the town’s mainline railway station.

The arrival of hundreds of civil servants as the Treasury and other Government departments transfer to Darlington is another boost to our proposals and shows our aspirations as a town that can play a key role nationally, as well as regionally, are well founded.

Darlington was built on the hard work, innovation and forward-thinking of previous generations.

We’re proud of our rail heritage and our place in the history books, but it’s just as important to look forward and create a modern town that supports a thriving economy and a well-trained population.

Darlington can’t rest on its past glories, but it can use them as a springboard to future success.

Angela Howey
Chair of the Darlington Towns Fund board