Council leaders have been detailing how more than £30million of investment secured from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund and match funded by Durham County Council and the Science Museum Group is set to provide vital investment in transport infrastructure and culture-led regeneration to County Durham during a visit to the area by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP.

The visit comes following the recent success of Durham County Council’s application for £20million from the government’s Levelling Up scheme. This will help in delivering a heritage corridor master plan focussed on visitor attractions Locomotion in Shildon and the Stockton and Darlington Railway Line, as well as delivering the A68 Toft Hill bypass and reopening historic Whorlton Bridge.

There has been further good news for County Durham with the announcement that Hitachi, which has a factory in Newton Aycliffe, has in a joint venture with Alstom been awarded a contract from HS2 to build high speed trains.

During his visit Mr Sunak met with the council’s Leader Cllr Amanda Hopgood, deputy leader Cllr Richard Bell, chief executive John Hewitt and its corporate director of regeneration, economy and growth Amy Harhoff. He was then given a tour of Locomotion  by Director Judith McNicol and Head of Museum, Sarah Price, where the Levelling Up funding will be used to help build on the area’s status as the world’s first railway town with the engineering pedigree that gave birth to the world’s first passenger railway. This will make a huge contribution to the bi-centenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025 – a key part of County Durham’s bid to be named UK City of Culture in 2025.

Increased car parking, cycle parking spaces and electric vehicle charging points at Locomotion, as well as the new Locomotion Building Two and improvements that will see heritage engines run along the museum line, are set to drive many more visitors from around the country to the popular attraction.

County Durham is already a major economic force in the North East. It has 533,100 residents, supports 174,000 jobs in 14,565 businesses while it also attracts more than 20 million tourists and contributes £9billion to the region’s economy each year.

Cllr Amanda Hopgood, Leader of Durham County Council, said: “We have ambitious plans to regenerate County Durham’s towns and villages to ensure that the county remains a fantastic place to live, work and visit.

“That is why we were delighted to have been successful in bidding for £20million from the Levelling Up fund towards our infrastructure, a figure which will be matched by investment of £11million from the council and The Science Museum Group, to help us achieve the very best outcomes for our communities.

“The funding will also be of great benefit to our proposed Inclusive Economic Strategy which, working with key partners, strives to enable business aspiration and improve training and education opportunities to help people into skilled jobs. It will also support more inclusive opportunities for innovation and economic growth, helping people and businesses to thrive.

“The strategy builds on our existing investment plan, which includes the expansion of NETPark at Sedgefield, strategic development at Aykley Heads, transport investment including Toft Hill Bypass, over £50million secured for Bishop Auckland, our Council Homes programme, our bid to be named City of Culture 2025 and extensive leisure transformation. This strategy, partnered with the securement of funding from the Levelling Up campaign, enables us to support future inclusive economic growth.

“We have also had tremendous news that Hitachi, as part of a joint venture with Alstom, has been award a contract from HS2 to build high-speed trains, sustaining jobs in Newton Aycliffe and across the rail supply chain in County Durham. This proves that the manufacturing sector in County Durham can deliver and build the new generation of high-speed trains, building upon the long heritage of train building in the county.”

As well as improvements to Locomotion, the funding award will also allow the re-routing of the A68 at Toft Hill, creating a new 1.6-kilometre bypass away from the village centre which will link from the junction of Hartbrigg Lane to the junction of the A68 at Toft Hill Lane.  With an average of 8,000 vehicles using the road each day, it will help to improve journey times, reduce traffic and improve road safety through the village.

Whorlton Bridge, which is the UK’s oldest road suspension bridge, has been closed to all users since December last year. As well as providing access to the A66, A67 and Barnard Castle from nearby villages, the bridge also forms part of the National Cycle Network (NCN) and Teesdale Way, offering connections for short and long-distance active travel.

With funding now in place to support the necessary works, the bridge is planned to reopen in summer 2023. A visitor centre will be developed as part of the works, allowing users to celebrate the bridge’s transport heritage.

An 18-kilometre walking and cycling route will also support residents and visitors in active travel, linking rural communities to Bishop Auckland and Newton Aycliffe, as well as to the National Cycle Network.

Judith McNicol, Director of Locomotion and the National Railway museum, said: “There’s no better way to illustrate the incredible opportunities that we have with the Levelling Up Fund and the County Durham bid for UK City of Culture 2025, than the tour we took with the Chancellor around our historic site at Locomotion.

“We’re investing in Locomotion and Shildon to create an inspiring experience for our visitors and our community, a brand new building that will provide a safe and stunning environment for our collection of railway vehicles, and a sustainable future for our internationally important heritage buildings.

“As we build towards the national celebrations for the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025, the prospect of unlocking this area’s extraordinary economic and cultural potential now seems well and truly within reach.”

Following his visit, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said: “We are absolutely committed to levelling up opportunities across the whole of the UK so people have good jobs and greater opportunities.

“It’s fantastic to see how our £20 million investment will enhance this popular tourist attraction. This will boost access for rural communities so they can enjoy the area’s rich railway heritage and connect people to key transport links nearby.”