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How to renew our old 'new towns'
Newton Aycliffe town centre
Work has begun to reinvent Newton Aycliffe town centre

There was a time when people queued up to move to Newton Aycliffe.

Recent decades, though, have seen Aycliffe - like so many post-war New Towns - fall from favour.

Work has now begun to demolish some of the unpopular 1960s buildings with the hope of bringing new investment into the town.

Despite falling behind schedule, the town centre's management say they are 'fully committed' to their plans to replace much of the shopping district.

A paradise of bricks and mortar
Sir William Beveridge
Sir William Beveridge laid plans for radical reform in post-war Britain

After World War II, the British people wanted change. Winston Churchill, just months after bathing in the glory of victory in Europe, found himself out of Downing Street, replaced by the Labour government of Clement Atlee, promising a fair deal for all.

Atlee's government implemented the recommendations of a report by William Beveridge that promised to eradicate the so-called 'Five giants' of poverty, disease, homelessness, ignorance and unemployment.

This brought Britain social security benefits, the NHS, council housing and free education. It also brought us new towns.

Newton Aycliffe was founded in 1947 under the New Towns Act, the first New Town in the North. The town grew quickly, attracting a prosperous mix of people and businesses.

But the speed of that growth came at a price. Today, many of the buildings and facilities, constructed with limited time and money, are seen as eyesores and indicators of a town in decline.

Unhappy shoppers
Shoppers in Newton Aycliffe
Like many towns, Newton Aycliffe struggles to fill its shop units

You can't escape the legacy of Sir William Beveridge in Newton Aycliffe. The main shopping street is called Beveridge Way, but the architect of the welfare state wouldn't be too happy to hear the talk there.

Standing beneath the concrete canopy that leads to the upper level of - well - empty shop units mostly, a woman was reminiscing with her mother about better times.

"They used to have seats and nice flowers and now we don't have anything nice, do we? It's just a mess!" Her mother added, "When I first came here in the 1950s it was beautiful and all the shops were open. It was lovely."

The good news is, most locals don't think it would take much more than 'a bit of cleaning up' to persuade shoppers to give the town a try, rather than travel the extra seven miles to Darlington.

Then again, previous attempts haven't brought the desired results.

In 2003, a new Tesco superstore opened in Newton Aycliffe and it was hoped it would bring with it the necessary investment to bring the town centre up to date.

That didn't happen and, in fact, some accused it of drawing customers out of the high street shops. Now, you can park, stock up at the supermarket and leave, without ever passing through the rest of the shopping centre.

Inside W Slater and Sons, you'll find master butcher William Slater himself. He's worked here as a butcher on and off for forty years.

"Oh, it was fantastic in the old days when cars could drive through the town centre and there were no supermarkets and people shopped in shops, not like they do now. They choose the supermarket over the High Street, don't they?"

But he said while competition from Tesco caused problems for some small retailers, his trade hasn't suffered. "If you sell better quality meat, English, local meat instead of foreign imports, that sort of thing, tell the customers what you're doing and they'll be loyal to you. They'll come back.

"We have regulars that are looking for a better quality meat. They're looking for a meat where I can tell you the history of it."

Big plans
Demolition in Newton Aycliffe
The area around Dalton Way has already been demolished

The second phase of the demolition of the former office block at Dalton Way was completed in November 2010. Work is now underway to remove the neighbouring former library and health centre.

Town centre manager, Bryan Haldane said, "Once the site has been cleared of debris and the old toilet block has been demolished, a hoarding will be erected around the perimeter to ensure the site remains safe and secure."

When completed, the plan is to put a canopy over the marketplace to keep the worst of the weather off shoppers, provide wider, more open access to the centre and replace the south west end of the shopping street with a new, open plaza.

The council is also expected to grant planning permission for a new Aldi store in the town in December 2010.

The revamp of the town was scheduled to enter its final phase in 2013, but is already behind schedule and remaining works will have to be conducted during a period of public spending cuts.

Despite this, management are optimistic they can still complete the work, starting with the pile of rubble that was, until a week ago, an empty 1960s office block.

Mr Haldane said, "We hope to start building work on the site sometime in the summer of 2011 working towards completion in the summer of 2012."

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