Local: A new dawn for Durham

Councillor Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, looks back on a challenging year and tells North East Times what local residents and businesses can expect from the council in 2021

 

Q: How has the landscape in Durham changed over the last 12 months due to COVID-19?

A: The coronavirus pandemic is one of the greatest challenges in living memory and I would like to express my deepest sympathies to all those who have lost loved ones this year.

From the outset, our priority has been to maintain key services while supporting vulnerable residents and helping businesses access the grants and assistance available. In common with many other areas of the country the pandemic in County Durham brought a real focus on the value and contribution of our frontline services, and we have also seen a tremendous community effort from local people.

Sadly, many of our businesses have also been hit hard over recent months, especially in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

Yet, there are also positives to emerge from what has been an incredibly challenging year. Community spirit has always been strong in County Durham and has flourished in 2020, with groups, individuals, businesses and charities working tirelessly to support people in their neighbourhoods.

Many of us have also identified new and innovative ways of working and it has been encouraging to see more people shopping locally.

We have also continued to work with our partners to keep major investment projects on track and have celebrated important milestones in the development of strategic employment site across the county.

These projects will play a critical role in our economic recovery and the creation and safeguarding of jobs for many years to come. In County Durham we are committed to building a green economy for the future and sustainability is central to our regeneration plans going forward.

In the summer, the £200 million Jade Business Park near Seaham welcomed its first tenant. Meanwhile, the completion of £5.5 million junction improvements at Junction 61 of the A1 near Bowburn paved the way for Integra 61, the largest scale logistics and manufacturing development in the North East.

Last month, plans to develop Aykley Heads into a major business park were approved, and, in Sedgefield, the third phase in the development of our world class science and technology park NETPark is underway.

These are just some of the many projects being driven forward by the council and private sector investors, as we work together to safeguard and grow County Durham’s economy.

 

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: At Durham County Council everything we do is centred on our vision, which was agreed by the County Durham Partnership in 2019 following extensive public consultation. This states that by 2035 County Durham will be a place where there are more and better jobs, people live long and independent lives and communities are well connected and supportive of each other.

The events of 2020 have strengthened our resolve to achieving this vision. As we enter 2021, we know there are great challenges ahead, but we believe we are in a stronger position than many areas to overcome these challenges, grow our economy and reduce our environmental impact while delivering more and better jobs.

When we became a unitary authority in 2009, we set out bold ambitions to regenerate our economy and these long-term investments are already paying off. Rather than pull back on this work when the pandemic struck, we accelerated our economic strategy. The groundwork we put in place prior to 2020 means we already have strong foundations on which to build a successful post-pandemic future.

Over the next decade, we project £3.4billion will be invested in the county resulting in the creation of 32,000 jobs by 2035. The County Durham Plan sets out how we will work to achieve this and ensure the county is a successful place to live, work and invest. It includes provision for more than 300 hectares of land to be allocated for business and industry development.

In 2019 we declared a climate emergency and established ambitious but achievable targets for carbon reduction. While we’ve made great strides in this area since then, reducing our carbon emission by 50 per cent, there is much more to be done. The coming years will be crucial for us as we work towards our 2030 targets but we are committed to leading by example and setting standards for others to follow.

This is in addition to our commitment to strengthening our £955 million visitor economy and improving connectivity by enhancing our transport infrastructure.

Like many parts of the north of England, County Durham is dealing with a legacy of historic under investment. Together with other North East councils, we will continue to lobby the Government to bridge the gap between our region and more affluent areas of the country and we await details of how the levelling up fund and shared prosperity fund will benefit County Durham.

 

Q: The authority’s planning committee last month (December) approved a blueprint to redevelop its Aykley Heads headquarters site into a business park. First-phase development work is anticipated to begin early this year, with the council switching to a smaller office base and relocating some workers to Crook and Seaham. How much does this development speak about the council’s sustainable approach to future operations and its commitment to strengthening County Durham’s reputation as a business hub?

A: The approval of plans to transform our Aykley Heads site into a major business park is a key moment in the delivery of our £3.4 billion economic strategy and, after an exceptionally challenging year, a sign of brighter times ahead.

By transforming this prime site into a new and unique business location, we can deliver thousands more and better jobs in growing sectors and maximise our green economic growth for the county. This in turn will strengthen our reputation as a business hub on a regional and national level, attracting even more investment into the county.

Subject to the approval of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the next few months work will begin on the first phase – the creation of 3,500 square metres of flexible office space to the north of the site.

This, combined with the second phase, which will see the development of the wider site, has the potential to boost our economy by £400 million and bring 4,000 new and better jobs to the county, plus a further 1,800 jobs during the construction phase.

Of course, all major plans to create new jobs bring with them an element of risk, but in our many conversations with developers and business leaders, it is clear the potential of the Aykley Heads development is huge. This view is shared by the North East Chamber of Commerce and other businesses already located on the site, and it is easy to see why.

Aykley Heads Business Park will be modern, sustainable and set amongst mature woodland, a stone’s throw from Durham’s historic city centre. With close links to the East Coast Mainline and bus and cycling routes, it will offer a choice of green travel options. Similarly, the addition of paths and seating areas within the landscaped areas will provide a pleasant environment for employees wishing to get some fresh air and exercise during their breaks.

To make way for this once in a lifetime development, the council’s current headquarters, County Hall, will be demolished. Construction is underway on a significantly smaller headquarters at the Sands car park. This will provide a base for 1,000 council staff, boosting footfall and trade in Durham city centre, as well as in Crook and Seaham where other employees will be relocated.

Aykley Heads forms an important part of our longstanding mission to attract investment right across our diverse county, boost our economy and provide thousands more jobs for the future, which in these challenging times are needed more than ever.

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