November 5, 2019
On the wall of Ian Williams’ fourth-floor office hangs an aerial shot of Darlington.
A touch bleached by years of sunlight, the image captures a town of yesteryear.
In the distance, the last vestiges of engineering behemoth Whessoe are seen butting against open land.
The historic business put Darlington on the international map as a gas and petroleum tank manufacturer, having previously played a key role in the proliferation of Britain’s railway industry.
Here, however, in the early 1990s, a swathe of its once sprawling site now awaits housing.
It may be more than two decades ago, but the image’s transitional feel resonates with the present day.
Changes are afoot across Darlington.
In its centre, a former bus depot and car parks have been replaced by a cinema and restaurant hub and multi-storey car park, respectively.
Neighbouring is the half-built, potential 400- job Feethams House, a speculative £8.5 million, five-storey Grade A office building project led by Darlington Borough Council with key financial support from Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) and the European Union Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
Up the road, commercial, educational and residential buildings co-exist where railway sidings once thrummed at Central Park.
Here, Business Central – council-owned but managed by the North East BIC – is a hothouse for SMEs, with Darlington College and a Teesside University campus supporting students’ learning as an adjacent Centre for Process Innovation base works on next generation healthcare.
On the outskirts, Symmetry Park – led by developer DB Symmetry – boasts a huge distribution hub and associated office space.
Built for a large online retailer – its identity concealed by confidentiality clauses – it will deliver 2000 jobs when it opens.
Elsewhere, Ingenium Parc, which borders Cummins’ heavy-duty engine manufacturing plant off Darlington’s Yarm Road, provides yet further evidence of a town evolving.
Principally funded by the Local Growth Fund and the National Productivity Investment Fund, council bosses say the prospective 2000-job site will be a key long-term employment venue.
The changes extend to Bank Top railway station, where the council is working with TVCA – with support from Transport for the North, HS2 and Network Rail – to revitalise the hub.
Proposals include re-modelling the station and creating new platforms for longer trains, which officials say will provide thousands of jobs, holds the potential to deliver new homes and commercial buildings and – for a town intrinsic to the birth of rail travel – shave sizeable chunks off journey times to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Leeds.
“The success of Darlington is predicated on growth,” says Ian, who is director of economic growth and neighbourhood services.
“We want to be known as the place where people choose to live and where businesses want to locate to.
“Working with the private sector to accelerate and increase investment is particularly important to us, and our focus is very much to be partners of business and make it easy for companies to come here,” he adds.
The work is yielding rewards.
“These are jobs for Darlington, South Durham, the Tees Valley and North Yorkshire,” says
Ian, referring to the Symmetry Park retailer development, which is based on former farmland off the A66 that circles Darlington to its east.
“They will pay the living wage and cover managerial, engineering and supply chain roles.
“It is very significant in terms of opportunities for residents and for business rates too.”
Talks are ongoing over further use of the site, which could include another 700,000 sq ft logistics facility or a hybrid plan that could potentially feature a hotel, forecourts or small offices and manufacturing space.
Whatever the outcome, Ian says Symmetry Park is a reminder of Darlington’s business prowess.
“We’ve got about 4000 companies, many of which are SMES, but we also have names such as Cummins, EE, Amec Foster Wheeler and The Student Loans Company, which employs 1500
“And distribution is a growing sector too – we already have Aldi and Argos warehouses – and Symmetry Park shows companies are coming here for a reason,” adds Ian, highlighting Darlington’s proximity to the A66 and the arterial A1.
However, it isn’t just the roads offering Darlington an avenue to future prosperity.
Working alongside TVCA under the Darlington 2025 banner – a year that will mark the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway’s establishment – the council aims to upgrade the town’s Bank Top station to improve East Coast Main Line connections, accommodate future HS2 trains and strengthen existing freight services.
Bosses say the changes will deliver a £130 million annual economic boost, more than 3000 direct and indirect jobs, and take nearly half an hour off journeys to London.
“We want a modern gateway for the Tees Valley and there is acknowledged fact that by 2033 the capacity constraints at Darlington are going to cause problems for the East Coast Main Line,” says Ian.
“That bottleneck heavily affects the East/West flow of trains because of the way they have to get across the station.
“We are working with the Government to present the case and are pretty hopeful we’ll soon see some significant progress.”
As well as feeding commuters into Darlington’s town centre, Bank Top funnels business into another new district – the nearby Central Park – which is primed for further growth.
Most recently home to Teesside University’s £22.3 million bioscience-based National Horizons Centre, Central Park has UK-wide appeal, with SMEs recognising it as a convenient Northern hub.
“It is an innovation asset and something different for Darlington,” says Ian, adding the development’s Business Central SME incubator site is 94 per cent full.
However, Ian tells North East Times the landscape is set to be bolstered by another council-backed office and laboratory hub.
“We are planning our second foray because of the success of Business Central,” says Ian, “and we’re hopeful of attracting ERDF and TVCA support.
“We hope to have the approvals by the middle of next year, and we’ll then look for an agent to manage it,” he adds.
If Central Park is now ingrained into Darlington’s commercial sector, Feethams House offers a glimpse into its future.
It will open next year as a SME hub that gains – and retains – business for the town.
Explaining how it fits into the council’s wider town centre plan, which has delivered a cinema, hotel, restaurants, coffee shop, pub and riverside walkway via the DL1 development – Ian says Feethams House is another vital piece in the jigsaw.
“DL1 has turned a car park into a £40 million private sector investment.
“However, we recognised we also needed office space, which we have with Feethams House.
“It is a bold signal from us but I’m hopeful that by the turn of Christmas we’ll have two tenants signed.
“It will boost the town centre too because we will have 300 to 400 people using it during the day and on an evening.”
Having greater numbers will also help with the council’s plans around revitalising its centre, says Ian, which include refurbishing its Victorian covered market to include a Temperate Garden, new food and drink vendors and fresh entertainment.
Equally important, he says, is ensuring a correct ratio of residential developments in the town, which will provide scope to maintain core services.
“A key element of what we are doing is around knitting together offices with housing and the public realm,” says Ian.
“We have our own housing building firm, have joint ventures with the private sector, and have
a number of sites under construction with Esh Group.
“They are mainly private sale housing, but we get a 50 per cent return on profits that we invest in services that people need, such as social care.
“None of what we are doing is by accident; it’s a thought through plan and we have a very supportive council.
“You never get to the end of this journey, but I’m pleased with the progress we’re making.”