A HISTORIC plan to wipe entire communities off the map is to be recalled in an exhibition at Beamish Open Air Museum next year.
In a highly-controversial move, more than 100 villages across the North East – including Chopwell, High Spen and Marley Hill in Gateshead, Burnhope near Lanchester and Witton Park near Bishop Auckland – were blighted for decades after being given Category D status by planners.
The 1951 Durham County Development Plan classified villages as an A, B, C or D settlement, and it was Category D settlements where no future development would be permitted and property would be acquired and demolished, with the population planned to be relocated to new housing.
A total of 114 settlements were listed in the 1951 plan, rising to 121 in the revised Durham County Development Plan of 1964. But no more than three had been completely wiped off the map by 1969, and the Category D policy officially ended in 1977.
Now staff at Beamish Museum are searching for people who lived in those blighted communities to relive their memories of the fight to save their villages. The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery.
Dave Smith, the museum’s Community Engagement Co-ordinator, said: “We want to discover why communities meant and still mean so much to people.
“Although very few villages actually completely disappeared, many are far smaller than they used to be, and some have only comparatively recently seen new housing appear.
“Yet people fought to save villages which often weren’t particularly attractive and which had few facilities.
“The issue is still very relevant today. Durham County Council recently produced a new plan which specifies where new development will take place, which is also attracting controversy.
“But there is very little information on the Category D policy, certainly not on the internet. That is one reason why we are anxious to talk to people about their recollections.”
Today museum staff will be in Bishop Auckland, Crook and Spennymoor libraries to talk to locals and hear their thoughts on Category D villages between 10am and noon.
Villages such as Chopwell and High Spen were saved when local government reorganisation of 1974 placed them within Gateshead Borough Council’s jurisdiction instead of within County Durham.
Other communities, notably Witton Park, successfully fought tooth and nail to avoid extinction, even though several streets were bulldozed.
Witton Park is known as “the village that refused to die” and Mr Smith said: “The community remains defiant, even though it is a lot smaller than it used to be.
“It was on the original Darlington-to-Stockton railway, but many people were re-housed to larger towns such as Bishop Auckland when it was condemned as Category D.
“We would love to talk to those who had to move away as well as to those who remained.”