Q: How has the landscape in Darlington changed over the last 12 months due to COVID-19?
A: It goes without saying that 2020 has thrown up some unexpected challenges, both socially and economically and I expect that we’ll be seeing the repercussions of the pandemic for many years to come.
But, as a progressive local authority, we were in a strong position at the start of the year, and with careful forward planning under our belts and some Government support this will see us through the rollercoaster of 2020.
Our priority remains to strengthen Darlington’s economy, by attracting new businesses with private investment – creating jobs for our residents – and by levering in vital public investment for key infrastructure. The disruption this year has given us a renewed impetus to sharpen our vision but growing our economy is fundamental if we are to make a speedy and successful recovery.
As we all know High Streets are changing rapidly – we recognised this some time ago and have ambitious plans to celebrate our heritage, revitalise our high street and create the conditions for a vibrant and diversified town centre.
The in depth work we’ve done to understand and plan for a successful future is now being delivered. We are acquiring strategic assets, facilitating private investment in the town centre, areas such as the Victorian market and our historic yards are undergoing key transformations, public realm is being updated – and we are bringing forward plans for town centre living.
With Government support we have begun to develop some key programmes – a successful bid to the Towns Fund will bring over £23m of regeneration funding to encourage and support developments in the town centre and key gateway areas.
While Covid is undoubtedly challenging us all, we remain well placed to capture more business, having have completed Feethams House – 30,000sq ft of Grade-A office space in the heart of our town centre.
Q: How are you as an authority now planning for 2021 and laying the foundations for a successful post-pandemic future – will you be looking to work with central Government for necessary support and funding to achieve your goals?
A: We’ve an excellent track record of partnership working – both public and private sector – in Darlington, punching well above our weight in major projects and seeing an excellent return on our investments.
Partnerships, forward planning, and creating innovative solutions is central to our ethos and helps us capture private sector inward investment, and to maximise support from Government.
By working with Government our Town Fund success is a great example of this –and will enable us to accelerate the regeneration work to key areas in our town buildings, our riverfront, and physical improvements to our town centre heritage gems.
Other funded plans include a multi-million pound refurbishment of our Victorian Indoor Market, investment in our historic yards, town centre Wifi and public realm improvements, a £25m revamp of the Head of Steam Museum in time for the bicentenary celebrations of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and the exciting work ready to transform the railway station.
We also have a superb track record of securing millions of private investment – the arrival of the Amazon distribution site in late 2019, creating over 1000 jobs , and further developments by Teesside University at Central Park, complimenting the work of life sciences experts CPI, position us well for new sectors.
The key to any growing economy is good jobs and a good home and we continue work hard to deliver a range of homes across all areas of Darlington to give our residents and people choosing to live in Darlington that choice.
We’ll continue to work hard to access funding where it is available including from TVCA and will help support and improve Darlington to be an excellent place for people to live, work and play.
Q: Darlington has a number of infrastructure projects in the pipeline, such as the redevelopment of the town’s Bank Top railway station, plans for a new A1 link road and the revitalisation of its Head of Steam rail museum. Given the impact of COVID-19, how confident are you that funding will be secured for these projects and, if it does come to fruition, what sort of impact will these developments have on the town’s economy and jobs market?
A: We are ambitious and will strive to do the best for Darlington, its businesses and residents. These three projects all serve to show the vision we have for Darlington – to create modern, impactful facilities that serve our local communities and visitors to the town, all underpinned by an energetic and growing business base.
All three have been shown to have a strong business case for Government investment and we are confident that funding will be secured for each.
The regeneration of the station is a key multi-million pound infrastructure project, benefitting not only Darlington but also the whole of the Tees Valley and the wider North East region. Bank Top is a key gateway and investment will realise significant transport and wider regeneration benefits. Improvement to the East Coast Main Line is vital if it is to operate at its best and this has long been recognised by industry experts and the Government.
The creation of a dedicated Tees Valley line and platform will open up huge opportunities for extra rail services, providing fast, reliable journeys for commuters and visitors. It will also give us the opportunity to regenerate the zone around the station, strengthening the links to Central Park and making use of the land newly vacated by the former cattle market site.
We’ve long touted Darlington’s excellent position on the East Coast Main Line, its close proximity to the A1 and A19, as well as being close to the revitalised Teesside Airport, and it’s vital that we continue to exploit those links where possible.
The completion of the A66 bypass around Darlington – completing the last link in the chain at the northern end of the town and providing north and southbound access to the A1 from Teesside – is key to this. Not only will it take huge amounts of heavy traffic away from residential areas but it will cut the journey time for hauliers looking to reach the motorway network significantly.
I am sure that the plans for the road network around Darlington were a factor for Amazon as they are for other business here – and we believe that further investment in the strategic road network will catapult Darlington and the Tees Valley to even greater economic success.
The redevelopment of the Head of Steam Railway Museum is an exciting programme. Darlington’s heritage perhaps has not been used to its full potential over the years, but the bicentenary of the first passenger rail journey in the world, between Stockton and Darlington, is a real chance to put that right. Our plans for the museum will see the creation of a bright, modern heritage campus and visitor attraction, mixing Darlington’s past glories with our current engineering excellence, making a particular feature of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust as they build their latest engine, the Prince of Wales.
The challenges that lie ahead in the short term are obvious and not to be underestimated but we believe that by following our vision and implementing the programmes we have developed, the future for Darlington and its residents is bright.