'You can't turn the whole of Durham into Beamish Museum,' says Simon Henig

Leaders hit out as anger rises over the dismissal by a Bristol-based planning inspector of "too ambitious" County Durham plan

Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council
Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council

Durham County Council’s Simon Henig is normally a calm and collected character.

But today the Labour leader’s conciliatory side has disappeared and in its place is an unmistakable edge. He’s angry.

A Bristol-based planning inspector has rejected a bold vision for the future of County Durham as “too ambitious” in a move which has sent shockwaves through the authority’s executive.

The County Durham Plan aimed to create 30,000 fresh jobs, 500 hectares of employment land, 9,500sq metres of retail space and 31,400 new homes by 2030 with the university city of Durham at the heart of development.

But the report by inspector Harold Stephens means that may never become a reality. The inspector branded the jobs target “unrealistic” and the CDP flawed and unsound.

While the news is welcome for greenbelt campaigners, Coun Henig is not ready to take such a judgement on Durham’s future lying down.

“If there is to be a Northern powerhouse and we take the Government at its face value then this would dampen that,” he said.

“This could be very damaging for County Durham. I think that is why businesses have reacted the way they have.

“The CDP is the difference between giving us that economic step change that we need or wrapping County Durham in cotton wool or just turning the whole area into Beamish Museum.

“I’m not naive, I know there are people who want no development and my challenge to them is: what is the future of County Durham then for our children? How do we stop our best young people leaving? Where are we going if we’re going to radically cut back these jobs targets.

“This is about our future. The future of County Durham is at stake. The confidence of businesses in County Durham is at stake.”

Council officers think the refusal of the plan as too ambitious may be a UK first. If approved, it would been a revival agent for a county recovering from the loss of the coal industry.

“Right from the outset with the unitary authority, we were very clear that economic development was going to be the key priority for County Durham,” he said.

“I said in my very first interviews that the unitary authority was about reversing County Durham’s economic decline if it was about anything.

“I said that because I knew and I think a lot of people still don’t realise what the economic data is in this county.

“Durham, Northumberland and Cornwall are the three poorest areas in England in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA) or are at roughly 60% of the national average.

“There have been deep, endemic problems. Clearly the massive impact of the closure of the coalfields and linked industry like the steelworks in Consett and so on have just left such an economic vacuum. It has been very, very difficult to fill that, but I’m not interested in managing the decline of County Durham.”

It comes as businesses prepare to send a protest letter to the Government backing the CDP and the council takes legal advice on its next move.

As it stands, the council has six months to rework the plan or face having to abandon it, but Coun Henig is not prepared to take the decision lying down.

“It isn’t just about the plan, we have been making big steps in the meantime and the most obvious example is Hitachi,” he tells me, as we sit in a boardroom in the 1970s office block County Hall.

“More than 45 places bid for Hitachi and we weren’t even on the long list when that process started.

“We managed to force ourselves on to the shortlist and came through that process against all of the others, many of whom assumed they would be the ones to get it.

“Whether it was Gateshead, Sheffield, North Wales, they were all absolutely convinced they were going to win Hitachi.

“I think when that process started - which was around about when the unitary was formed - that Hitachi would come to Newton Aycliffe then people would have sent for the men in white coats.

“Newton Aycliffe Industrial Estate will now become the largest industrial estate in the North East.

“But it’s is not just Hitachi, look at Atom and how they want to set up a new digital bank in Durham. Again, nobody would have believed two years ago that such an organisation would come to Durham.

“If it was to be in the North East, most would have assumed Newcastle but if it was to be the North then people frankly would have said Leeds.

“We are turning it round. Our vision for Durham isn’t just some pipe dream or as it has been declared by one or two people as ‘pie in the sky’.

“It’s not. It is already becoming a reality on the ground.

“Out of the blue in all this comes what happened last week, the planning inspector effectively canning the plan.

“He tells us that basically our jobs target should be lower.

“I still cannot see, looking at the plan, his justification for doing that. He just seemed to have plucked a sentence out of the air.

“Just one sentence on which the rest then turns because, obviously, if you have less jobs you don’t need so many houses or roads and so on.

“Effectively we have one inspector coming up from the South of England saying ‘sorry, Durham, sorry North East, I’m not going to allow you to have that target for jobs’.

“To me, it is completely unacceptable for that to happen.

“Inspectors have a very powerful position. I don’t know what he has read or what he knows about the North East.

“And we are not talking about the next year or two. This is about the next 15 years and this is a very important document.”

Coun Neil Foster, the council’s portfolio holder for economic regeneration, is also enraged.

He said: “All of our documents made it clear on what we were about going forward. Our ambitions and targets were clear.

“He sat there for six weeks listening to the public but never once questioned any of the facts and figures that we provided.

“He never gave us any homework to go away with and do, which is what the protocol is.

“He could have stopped the procedure to question our documents at any time and, to put it blatantly, he could have saved the people of County Durham a lot of money.

“When this report came out of the blue, we were shocked, disappointed, amazed, anger - it all felt such a waste of energy.

“Now, we have to get focused and be ready to take this forward.

“I think he has undermined our entire plan. He has put some wild statements out there about what he would like to see but he has no evidence to back it up.

“We need to put the rallying cry out there, to the business community and to the people of Durham who want their children to have a future here.

“We need them to get behind the plan. The danger is that it gets lost behind little superficial points and we don’t get the broader picture over.”

The knock comes at a time when infrastructure spending in the North East is dwarfed by that in London.

Spending per head on projects in the North East stands at £223, the lowest rate in the country and while in London it is £5,426. That means that for every £1 per person that is spent in the North East, London receives £24.33 per person.

Coun Foster said: “Boris and George are in London making announcements - ‘yes, Crossrail is no problem’ or ‘yes, you can have an extension to the Bakerloo line’ or ‘yes, you can do the Hammersmith and City line’ and they are laying down the tracks.

“Meanwhile, here in Durham are being stifled by an inspector who doesn’t seem to share our vision of Durham’s future.

“But we will push at every door that we can and we are determined to create a well-thought-out economic plan for Durham, because if we don’t then nobody else is going to.”

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