A New County

A New County

In the period now more appropriately called the second half of the 20th century than the post-war years, County Durham has undergone significant changes – economically and socially, in terms of landscape, even with regard to its administrative area. In many ways, therefore, it is appropriate to speak of a new county.

The most clear-cut change was that of local government when in 1974 the county lost its northern and southern portions to the newly-created counties of Tyne and Wear and Cleveland, respectively, but gained Startforth Rural District from the North Riding. The latter led to the addition of the white rose of Yorkshire to the county’s coat of arms. The adjustments left County Durham somewhat smaller in area, with its coastline reduced to a mere 1 1 miles, and a population more than halved. Our focus, however, will continue to be on the ancient geographi­cal county between Tyne and Tees. Here the major features existing in 1945 had all been set during the inter-war years, although the wartime economy had cut the county’s unemployment rate by over two-thirds from its 1939 figure of 15 per cent. Its staple industries were destined to decline, even though for the second time in this century the resumption of peacetime initially brought hopes of a new beginning.

Collieries in 1913, 1947 & 1990
Collieries in 1913, 1947 & 1990

The county’s leading industry, coal, was finally taken into public ownership in 1947. At this time it still gave employment to 108,000 in 127 pits. Nationalisation, however, came too late in the history of what had earlier been England’s premier field. Exhaustion or flooding of seams in the west and some thinning of seams eastwards contributed to the fact that, despite increasing mechanisation, cost of extraction was now well above the national average. A drop in demand, especially for export, exacerbated by increasing oil competition in the 1960s, meant that the Coal Board’s Plan and Revised Plan for the industry proved to be unduly optimistic. The locating of a nuclear power station on the north bank of the Tees at Seal Sands was a further indignity, and indicated the challenge facing the Durham coalfield. In consequence, national ownership has had to oversee a massive contraction of the industry as it retreated ever eastwards towards the coast. The rundown was particularly rapid in the 1960s when half the workforce and over half the pits were lost. The result is that the last decade of this century begins with a mere 8,000 engaged in six remaining pits – from north to south, Westoe (South Shields), Wearmouth, Vane Tempest (Seaham), Dawdon, Murton and Easington. Each is extracting coal beneath the North Sea as far as six miles from the shore. The fully-mechanised output, 8,000,000 tons, is but a fifth of the 1913 figure, a large proportion of which was hand-hewn.

A feature of more recent coal production has been the growth of open­cast working. An additional 1,000,000 tons is obtained in this manner, operated by both British Coal and, to a lesser extent, privately. Modern excavating machinery is able to uncover not only unworked seams but coal left in previous underground workings. One can only guess what passes through the minds of the crane operators as their machines scoop F up in a few bites the pillars of coal left by previous generations of hewers who toiled for days or weeks over the same area in a series of subterranean embayments or ‘stalls’, the pillars having been left to help support the roof.

It is common to opencast to depths of 500ft., deeper than many of the former pits in the western half of the field. Such a scale of operation means that the countryside is ravaged more severely during these few years of its working than it ever was with conventional mining, although land restoration is a mandatory part of any scheme. The economic argument is that the opencast output is necessary to subsidise the cost of winning deep-mined coal.

A second staple industry, iron and steel, thrived for nearly two decades before succumbing to international competition and reorganisation fol­lowing nationalisation. During the 1950s the Consett Iron Company erected a large new plate mill, while the South Durham Steel and Iron Company built a new works near West Hartlepool. The latter plant led to the closure by the company of its two older works in West Hartlepool and Stockton. In the 1970s, however, even the new plant had to yield to a rationalisation of the industry by the British Steel Corporation, with the Teesside production henceforth to concentrate on the south side of the river around the giant Redcar blast-furnace and Lackenby works. Only the pipemill of the Hartlepool plant was retained for special orders; otherwise the industry was phased out in the south of the county, quietly and without opposition. Ironically, the national union leader at the time, Bill Sirs, was a West Hartlepool man. He had been replaced and the economic climate had changed when steelworking suddenly ceased in the north of the county. In 1980 the Consett works closed, and nearly 4,000 men were suddenly without a job in an area of high unemployment. An action campaign was formed and comparison made with the 1930s, but, unlike the 1930s, generous redundancy pay­ments were made and capital grants or funds made available for new activities from the B.S.C., the councils, English Estates and the European Regional Development Fund. As a result, within a decade the number of job losses had been made good, although with a preponderance of female employment, and all visible evidence of the former works re­moved in what was described as Europe’s largest reclamation scheme.

Arial view of the city of Durham
Arial view of the city of Durham

Another traditional industry, shipbuilding, which had been fully stretched during the war years, enjoyed similar early post-war prosperity. At first there was demand to replace wartime losses and reconversion of commandeered vessels, followed by a demand for cargo and bulk carriers which was given a boost by the Suez Crisis of 1956. North Sea oil brought limited activity later, but the growth of world shipping capacity, as a result of expansion in the Far East as much as in Europe, brought a succession of amalgamations so that by the end of the 1960s all the major yards were in a consortium. Continued over-capacity, with no naval business to complement its merchant vessel activity, subsequently brought the closure of yards on all three estuaries. The fate of the last shipbuilders struck echoes of Jarrow two generations earlier when the former Austin and Pickersgill yard – already an amalgam of famous Wearside yards – closed in 1989. The industry had been nationalised in 1977, and as part of North-East Shipbuilders the yard was acknowl­edged as the most modern commercial shipbuilding unit in the country. In fact ‘yard’ was an inadequate description for the massive, totally enclosed cathedral of industry. However, when controversy surrounded its last order and the government was unconvinced by possible future orders or offers to buy the yard, 2,500 men were made redundant, the last of a proud line in a town which was once the world’s leading shipbuilding centre. There remains now the repair of vessels on Wearside and on the south bank of the Tyne.

Another heavy industry with particular roots in the county which has ceased in recent years is that of railway engineering. The former North East, then L.N.E.R., locomotive plant at Darlington closed in 1966. Wagon-building at Shildon survived long enough to host the 175th anniversary celebrations of the birth of the railways, including a caval­cade of steam headed by a replica of Locomotion Number 1, before the works finally closed in 1984.

Although the decline, or certainly the speed of decline, of the county’s staple industries was not predictable in the immediate post-war years, the physical environment to which they had given rise had long been the focus of concern. With planning no longer permissive but mandatory opposition from the local authorities concerned, so that the target population was set at a modest 10,000. However, the government-appointed Corporation in charge of development argued that such a small size would inhibit the provision of facilities and eventually this target figure was twice revised. The current population is some 25,000 in a town largely constructed on garden city lines. Although Peterlee New Town has grown to a similar size over the same period under the guidance for much of the time of the same Development Corporation, its history has been distinctive, often colourful and associated with particular personalities.

The origin of Peterlee belongs to C. W. Clarke, engineer and surveyor to Easington Rural District Council. A visionary and idealist, as well as a practical engineer, it was he who had the idea of centralised development for the scatter of mining settlements on the East Durham Plateau. He persuaded his councillors to accept the idea, located a site following his survey and suggested it be named after the miners’ leader who had begun his political career within the District. Clarke’s findings and proposals were summarised in 1946 in an evocatively-titled volume, Farewell Squalor. He then attracted the attention, and ultimate support, of the Minister of Town and Country Planning for a government-appointed New Town corporation to achieve the vision. The story did not arrive at a romantic conclusion when Clarke was overlooked as the Corporation’s chief architect and planner in favour of  Russian emigre, Berthold Lubetkin. Clarke subsequently became a clergyman in the Anglican church. Lubetkin, a modern architect of international repute, rejected the garden city theme as inappropriate to achieve the Minister’s request for ‘a miners’ capital of the world’, and proposed an ambitious high-rise scheme. This vision was thwarted, however, by the National Coal Board which would not agree to the necessary sterilisation of coal seams beneath the site in order to support his surface constructions. After protracted, unsuccessful discussions with the Coal Board, Lubetkin resigned frustrated and a more conventional design was adopted. How­ever, flair returned in 1955 when Victor Pasmore, an internationally-known painter, joined the architectural team. As a result, in part of the town innovative ‘cubist’ housing and a rolling topography were combined to create a ‘new aesthetic’. Acknowledged as ‘an experiment’, to many it was art rather than architecture, not least to the inhabitants who suffered from a questionable design of flat roofs on a coastal plateau 500 ft. up, from poor materials and faulty construction. For the town as , a whole, the contraction of mining has meant that Peterlee has become less of a miners’ capital and more of an industrial centre, facilitated by the A19 trunk route and a Corporation advertising it as ‘the place to be’.

Billingham, already a new town in terms of buildings, having grown with the inter-war expansion of the chemical industry, approached the County Council in 1947 to seek government New Town designation. It was eventually decided that continued local authority direction would achieve quicker results. Its economic base was certainly buoyant, if specialised, with the chemical complex expanding particularly as a result of the growth of oil-based products. The population has doubled to over 40,000. In urban terms, apart from the giant apparatus of the Works and an early, central leisure complex (The Forum) opened in 1967, the townscape is conventional and unexciting. The same cannot be said for the growth centre in the north of the county.

Washington New Town was designated in 1964, in the second round of designations, following its recommendation by the County Council and support by the Hailsham Report. Its area already possessed mining settlements, the biggest of which was Washington, and a chemical works. It was also strategically located within the Tyne and Wear urban region to take advantage of the planned road network. Indeed, as its Master Plan announced, Washington was to be designed ‘to cater for full motorisation’. It was accordingly laid out on a grid pattern of dual carriageways, with intersections of secondary roads every mile leading to 18 distinct settlements quaintly named ‘villages’ although referred to by number on the highways. Each settlement is given a distinctive identity through a particular architectural style and is linked to others by a complementary system of footpaths. The central feature is what would be referred to anywhere else as an out-of-town shopping centre. Although over-optimistic in its car-owning prediction -‘By the year 1976 it is expected that nearly every family will have at least one car’ – its location and environmental standards have ensured success as a focus of industry and services within the broader region of which it is part. Its population has risen from an original 21,000  to over 60,000.

The provision by central government of New Town Development Corporations has been but one strand in a hierarchical web of agencies that have provided the context for industrial growth within the county since 1945. Most of the county for much of the time has been covered by development area status of different grades under the Distribution of Industry Acts, in which government-financed industrial estates have been a prominent feature. Here the early momentum of the Team Valley was a decisive factor in its choice in 1960 as the headquarters of the English Industrial Estates Corporation. More recent policies have brought Enterprise Zones and Urban Development Corporations for parts of blighted Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside. There have also been regional agencies: formerly the North East Development and Planning Councils, now the Northern Development Company. Briefly in the mid-1960s there was even a Minister for the North-East. At the two extremes of scale have been the local and county authorities, with their promotional and financial encouragement, and the European and Regional Development Fund, with its grants for roads, industrial estates and visitor projects.

The full impact of this web of administrative support has been masked by the massive decline in employment in mining and heavy manufacturing, with the consequence that the county’s unemployment figure has remained well above the national average. Modern manufac­turing, moreover, is characteristically capital- rather than labour-inten­sive. The well-publicised Nissan car assembly plant at Washington, for instance, employs 2,000. In comparative terms this is only half the number who lost their jobs when the Consett works closed or one-third the number employed in the MetroCentre service complex. The latter comparison is perhaps the most relevant one, since the county during the most recent phase of its history has evolved an economy increasingly based on service activities, retailing and tourism.

The most remarkable monument to the post-industrial economy, and one without precedent or roots in the region, is the MetroCentre. The vision belonged to John Hall, the money was that of the Church Commissioners. A significant third element was designation of the area as an Enterprise Zone, with its 1 0-year freedom from rates. The combination transformed a derelict riverside area three miles west of Gateshead into Europe’s biggest ‘shopping and leisure experience’. One measure among many to gauge its size is the provision of (free) parking for 10,000 cars.

In addition to the MetroCentre, the northern part of the county also has ‘Retail World’, develope.d on a section of the Team Valley Estate, as well as the new Washington Centre. On another large area of derelict land between the Team Valley and the Tyne, on part of the site rejuvenated for the 1990 National Garden Festival, are further leisure facilities. Other possible major leisure projects are a Weardale Ski Centre near Wolsingham and a 1,000-berth yacht marina at the Hartle-pools. Meanwhile, the county authority has been active in creating picnic areas and country parks, and converting many disused railway tracks into walkways. At Beamish 300 acres have been laid out since 1970 as the North of England Open Air Museum to retain a record of the county and Tyneside around the turn of the century, when the world was wealth-creating rather than wealth-spending. An adit mine, colliery village, town street and farm are all ‘working’ environments: the past, we are assured, is ‘living’, the experience ‘authentic’. The same cannot be claimed for ‘Catherine Cookson Country’ of South Tyneside, which, although the setting of the prolific novelist’s works, contains plaques in rose beds to mark the house where she was born, and also her later childhood home. The county authority itself, with its own five-year tourist strategy launched in 1987, viewed the exploitation of history as a key element. Accordingly, all roads entering the county palatine now announce it as the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’. With a prevailing trend to ‘theme’ development, where fantasy can replace history, care will have to be exercised in order that 1066 does not turn into ‘1066 and all that’.

Modern County Durham - economic features
Modern County Durham – economic features

The appearance of the county is clearly important in the attraction of visitors, but a programme of environmental improvement long predates the recent emphasis on tourism. The extent of Durham’s substandard housing, obsolete industry and despoiled landscapes presented the most formidable post-war restoration challenge to any county in Britain. The authority began its programme before central government funds were available and has restored some 11,000 acres (or 16 square miles) of derelict mining and industrial eyesores, including the levelling of 100 spoilheaps. County financial aid to local authorities resulted in a further 2,300 acres being restored. The transformation has often been remarkable, although to the trained eye the smoothness of the green contour lacks the unpredictability or ruggedness of the ‘natural’ northern landscape. In the 1980s the auth­ority deservedly won various awards, including Europa Nostra and Royal Town Planning Institute commendations for its reclamation work.

Devon - Armada Preparations
Modern County Durham – social features

One direction in which the county’s efforts at environmental improve­ment have been thwarted has been along the coast, where dumping of coal waste into the sea still continues. Until 1939 the sea removed the waste as fast as it was tipped, but increased output from the big coastal pits after 1945 led to waste and black slurry accumulating along, or even forming, the shoreline. Some eight miles of coast are polluted, and dumping continues despite two Royal Commissions and government urging that the practice must cease. Meanwhile, much of the coast is designated by the County Council as a Landscape Improvement Area, along with two broad arms stretching inland across the old coalfield, one towards Consett, the other to Bishop Auckland. The zoning, with its intention of lifting the landscape quality, is to be seen within the scheduling of other tracts of countryside which are already attractive and which are to be protected from inappropriate development. Technically, these are either areas of great landscape value (A.G.L.V.) or special landscape value (A.S.L.V.), the latter being smaller. In Tyne and Wear there is no distinction, the more general term ‘green belt’ being used. The whole of the western half of the county, consisting of open Pennine moorlands, dales and foothills, is designated as an A.G.L.V. In 1987 it was nationally recognised when, following pressure from the Countryside Commission and after a public inquiry, the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (A.O.N.B.) was created. The Council for the Protection of Rural England had pressed for its creation in the 1930s. The highest parts are claimed to be ‘England’s last wilderness’. Certainly rare alpine flora, remnants of the last Ice Age, are found and protected in several nature reserves, but what we term wilderness has been variously exploited by our ancestors for millennia. Today, much of the moorland is ‘managed’ so that it constitutes the most productive grouse moors in the country. The dales contain some of our richest remaining hay meadows; here farmers in the A.O.N.B. are encouraged through subsidy and informed advice to maintain not only the species-rich meadows but also the traditional landscape features of stone-walling, barns and woodland. Up to two-fifths of a farmer’s income may come from subsidy given in the cause of conservation.

While the variety of conservation measures has led to a ‘greening’ of the countryside, complementary efforts have been made within towns. Apart from the protective listing of several thousand individual buildings of architectural or historical interest, the county now contains over 100 villages and towns, or parts of towns, which are designated as Conservation Areas under the 1967 Civic Amenities Act.

Conservation, no less than restoration, has brought environmental enhancement. The extent of our efforts, the artefacts we value and the attractive manner in which we present them might bring a smile to our recent ancestors. Our earlier forefathers, with little time for aesthetics, would find it incomprehensible. In many respects, therefore, the most recent chapter of history has seen the emergence of a new county.