Although this blogspot has been outwardly inactive for well over eighteen months now, we’ve been extremely active behind the scenes, as a major scandal looms on the horizon for Labour controlled Durham County Council in the wake of the implementation of a new local government initiative to off load land, buildings, and other assets still temporarily in Council hands, over to community ownership. With the government’s ‘forced austerity’ measures still in full swing and no sign of a change in direction in the event of a Labour victory in May, under the new county wide ‘Assets Transfer’ policy Durham County Council are looking at ways to transfer as many of their presently owned assets over to community ownership as possible; with a whole array of different public bodies including community groups, housing associations and parish councils just some of the organizations getting directly involved.
When last we were visibly active we raised the issue of the former Council land at Quarry Heads, Toft Hill, just outside of Bishop Auckland, with which Etherley Parish Council, Teesdale District Council and Durham County Council have all had direct involvements over a period of some thirty or so years. The scandal itself first erupted in the early nineteen nineties when members of a well known criminal family managed to obtain some sort of rights of possessory title over part of the land by what can best be described as highly irregular means. In spite of a major public hue and cry and repeated written representation being made to the then District Council and other related parties by former Labour District Councillor Joe Smith, nothing was ever done and all further attempts to get the situation rectified were subsequently ignored.
During the intervening period the criminal network involved were to successfully manage to establish a power base on the land in question, which, in spite of their claims in the local press, in which it has been described as a ‘Pets’ Plot’, resembles something more akin to a Taleban Compound than a place to keep one’s furry little friends. And, in more recent times, the situation had been allowed to get so bad, with the Police and their various ‘partner agencies’ both failing and refusing to get directly involved, that an article in the Teesdale Mercury which appeared in the wake of a meeting of Etherley Parish Council, at which the Council’s proposals to hand over responsibility for the land to the Parish were discussed in full, described Quarry Heads as a ‘no go area’. Although the Quarry Heads were now being described as a ‘no go area’ in the press, something which it had been for many residents for a considerable period of time, the Police still seemed incapable of providing a credible explanation as to why such a situation had been allowed to develop in the first place.
In addition to providing a reasonably detailed and up to date report on both the County Council and the Parish Council’s current position on the Quarry Heads, the ‘Teesdale Mercury’ also revealed that members of Council Staff who had become involved in trying to rectify a situation which years of what the article itself was to describe as ‘illegal encroachment’, on what had formerly been publicly owned land, had actually been physically threatened by the criminal family at the centre of the controversy around which the land itself is still effectively surrounded. For residents of the nearby Red House Estate which is situated directly adjacent to the land at Quarry Heads, although things there are considerably quieter there than they were when this entire controversy erupted well over twenty years ago, it is quite astounding that the late Joe Smith’s attempts to get the situation rectified were effectively sidelined for decades. During the intervening period however when Police and Council alike failed to take the appropriate action necessary for bringing the situation under control, hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage appears to have been done to many of the properties on the estate, whilst large numbers of residents appear to have been forced to go elsewhere in spite of the public authority that is presently responsible for the up keep and management of the Estate making widespread claims to the contrary.
In the meantime, and in spite of the outward appearance of normality, little or no sign of any direct change appears to have taken place with regard to the ownership and stewardship of the land itself. According to present reports the area is still frequented by the same undesirable element who were previously responsible for the alleged threats made to Council Staff referred to in the ‘Teesdale Mercury’. And, in spite of a clear Council commitment to getting the situation resolved, there seems little sign of the kind of drastic measures that need to be taken to restore the land to its rightful owners: the people of Toft Hill and High Etherley, actually manifesting on the ground.