The City of Durham Trust

“Durham: Beautiful ... but Dull”

This summary finding taken from a Report, published in June, by two firms of consultants into the development potential of the City, provided the headline in both the local and national press. It was warmly endorsed by the leaders of both the City and County Councils. The Report had been commissioned by the Durham Steering Group, an informal group with representatives from the City and County Councils and One North-East, along with the University and Cathedral. The remit was to seek a way “to fundamentally transform Durham as a visitor centre” in order to generate spending and create employment. Like all dutiful consultants, they reported current under-utilisation of resources and pointed to future exploitation. In view of the remit and implication of the vision presented, which would indeed fundamentally change Durham as we know it, a critique of the Report is justified. Both the nature and scale of the proposals will be queried, as well as inherent inconsistencies. The methodology used is a further cause for comment.

The Report, Planning for the Future of Durham: The new Retail and Leisure Offer, covers the three elements of retailing, leisure and tourism. While acknowledging that the elements cannot be compartmentalised, tourism is nevertheless seen as the key to unlocking the future of all three.

The section on retailing is realistic in recognising that the topography of the City centre limits expansion, while a regional setting in the shadow of major competitors precludes mounting any serious challenge. Consequently, the advent of any large leisure project is unlikely, since it would either require a cross-subsidy from shopping facilities, or have to perform a super-regional role. It is ironic to see a cinema listed as a desirable acquisition, and surprising to note the uncritical welcome of seven - the figure of nine is given in the text - bars/restaurants as the sum of facilities planned for Walkergate. Another authority might deem such unrelieved concentration as excessive.

The recommended retail element of the strategy is for small-scale, quality retailing to overcome its mediocre image (in retailspeak, to raise its status from Mr Average to Mr Glam). Claypath could accommodate 80,000 square feet of such development, in up to eight units ; the centre's vennels are seen to have potential; the Markets could act as a retail incubator, especially if a mezzanine floor proved feasible. The last mentioned is architecturally questionable, while the disappointing performance of premises in the imaginatively-developed Saddlers' Yard cautions against expecting too much of vennel and courtyard exploitation. Certainly, active Local Authority encouragement will be needed. To date, the Local Authority has been powerless to prevent the gradual demise of those unique, locally-generated premises which provide distinctive quality to the street scene - Greenwell's, Smith the Chemist, Peacock's, for instance.

It is the leisure/tourism section which gives cause for alarm. Tourism is said to hold the key to a “better” Durham and the City's future prosperity. However, the diagnosis is questionable, and the recommended strategy, if successful, would radically alter the character of the City. Apparently, “beauty, grandeur and a sense of history are not enough....It's what [visitors can] do that matters.” Thus a strategy of “democratisation” of heritage is proposed, based on accessibility and activity. The key location for activity is the Riverbanks – “arguably Durham's most under-utilised asset.” Aside from the longterm Riverbanks Garden Project, there is potential for water sports, casual sports area, cafes, bandstand, lights, festivals, themed events, etc. In addition, the creation of a contemporary riverside statement is recommended – “something to make people see Durham in a new light.” Apparently, “without this [development] Durham's most flexible, fresh and multi-faceted resource will remain ...a waterway.”

Exploitation of the Riverbanks is envisaged as offering a “grooviness”, in a counterpoint role to the “gravitas” of the peninsula, where the cathedral, castle and university offer “high quality culture and art, [but] can seem elitist.” Gravitas, however, does not bring exemption to change: “Durham's historical assets need to be brought to life – even if that means ‘taking liberties' with cherished local treasures.” Thus, the castle should be “opened up”; technology to create a virtual visitor experience could be installed; tourist business entrepreneurs might be brought in to manage the castle on behalf of the university. (This “need not mean removing the students”!) On Palace Green a range of “medieval events” could be staged. Elsewhere there might be an “interactive medieval gallery”, while the ancient bridges could carry brightly-coloured medieval banners promoting attractions on offer.

The section on the proposed democratisation of asset exploitation also contains the curious comment contrasting the “culture-bound heritage” on the peninsula with “the grassing over and numbing down of the mining industry.” Is this reference to the County Authority's extensive and award-winning restoration of pit heads and spoil heaps? Is this a hint that the city might set up a centre of mining history? (In which case, the question was answered in the 1960s, when Aykley Heads was assessed as a site for a regional open-air museum, and rejected in favour of Beamish.)

Marketing is considered to be “chronically under-resourced.” As a result, Durham “does not enjoy a mustvisit image,” and lacks “an explicitly-marketed identity, over and above the buildings.” This is a surprising conclusion, given that the headquarters of the Northumbria Tourist Board is in the City, and that for some years the City and County have had a joint programme to greatly increase tourist numbers. It is also a reflection on the efforts of City Tourist Officer.

The Report, summarised above with copious quotations in order to convey the tenor of the vision, is underlain by inconsistencies. Thus, it states it seeks to avoid a “Disneyfied service culture,” yet its democratisation proposes many elements akin to such a theme park. It recognises the asset of authenticity – “Durham is the real thing”- but the quality can be curiously expressed. For example, “From the enthusiasm of the volunteer cathedral guides, through the sauce bottles on the castle dining table, to the cobbled pavements, visitors experience a living heritage.”

The most glaring inconsistency concerns the question of size. The vision is allegedly of a City which is “better, not bigger,” but the strategy would undoubtedly promote growth. Advertising is to be made more effective. Even the insertion of “Durham” in the renaming of Teesside airport would benefit the City, it being “a boost to international tourism.” Many of the centres cited as examples for Durham relate to bigger and very different situations, eg Lyons (festival of lights), Brighton (beachfront), Milton Keynes (Xscape Snowdromes). Comments scattered through the Report from a Panel of Professional Experts further encourage this picture of vibrant growth potential. Thus, “make Durham more international, more cosmopolitan” or “invite the Tussauds Group to visit.” They express excitement over the possibility of a Regional Assembly: “Treat it as bunce – if it happens, great.” (The consultants do not dampen the enthusiasm. Durham is viewed as a front-runner for securing the Regional Assembly, and estimate that a major new office employer might lead to 3,000 new jobs and 1,500 new households.)

A concluding comment on the methodology underlying the Report may be made. In addition to standard research approaches and consultation with 14 Professional Experts, drawn from various fields, there were consultations with two other key groups - “Local Stakeholders” (totalling 50, of whom six were City Council Officers and four others from the related Durham City Arts) and “Voices of Durham” (numbering 34 and representing “a cross-section of Durham archetypes.”) No one from the City Trust was invited to either group. At least of equal significance is the fact that the Bibliography of more than 70 items omits any publication of the Trust. The omission is unfortunate, since its Visions of Durham is highly germane to the consultants' topic. It had its origin in the late 1980s when Durham appeared threatened with development from all sides. A day-long conference wrestled with the question, “What is Durham?” in order to tease out essential qualities which should be non-negotiable in the future evolution of our City. Distinguished panellists – architects, planners, conservationists, artist, theologian, geographer – as well as speakers from the floor, expressed a common appreciation and respect for the City, as well as common concern at possible over-development in the future management of change. Over the years the City of Durham Trust has grown used to repeated accusations of being against all change, wanting to preserve the City as a museum, or hindering future prosperity and job-creation, but simply being ignored is a new experience – and a surprising one, considering the wide consultation allegedly undertaken in the present exercise.

Among the many visitors to Durham in the mid-1990s was the distinguished author, Bill Bryson. Bringing with him the comparative eye of an international traveller, his unbridled response was unequivocal: “ wonderful – a perfect little city.” Perfection, however, is not within the consultants' lexicon. Dullness, on the other hand, justifies their case “to make Durham a more attractive place.” But whatever the motive or vision, we are all sojourners and stewards, and have no right to erode the essential quality of Durhamness.