MULTI-million pound plans to open up an old watercourse to protect a town against flooding have been drawn up.

A public consultation exercise on plans for a £6.2 million flood prevention scheme to protect Chester-le-Street is to take place in the New Year.

Durham County Council is seeking funding to open up a 90-metre stretch of the Cong Burn, which runs underneath the town’s main shopping area.

The stream flows through the centre of Chester-le-Street and into the River Wear, but the lower reaches were channelled into a concrete culvert beneath the town’s Market Place during the 1930s.

It is hoped that as well as reducing the risk of flooding, the move, which would see the watercourse transformed into a public realm feature, could also provide an economic boost to the town.

Details of the plan were revealed at Chester-le-Street Area Action Partnership’s board meeting held at the Parish Centre last night.

Residents are to be consulted on the proposals, which would also include extending the town’s existing floodwall, in the New Year.

Chester-le-Street has been repeatedly hit by flooding in recent years and was particularly badly affected by a severe storm in June 2012.

A number of small schemes have since been carried out by the council, Northumbrian Water and the Environment Agency in an effort to prevent flooding.

However, they say further work is needed in order to reduce flood risk in the longer term.

Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of the Council and ward member for Chester-le-Street West Central, said: “While repairs and upgrades aimed at reducing the risk of flooding have been undertaken during the past few years, we now need to look at a more long-term solution.

“Opening up the culvert that runs underneath the Market Place will not only help prevent flooding, it also gives us the opportunity to breathe new life into the town centre by using the open watercourse as a focal point.

“It is important that we gather the views of residents and businesses on our proposals, including the design of the water feature.”

The council has committed up to £1.5 million to the scheme and is applying to the Environment Agency and European Regional Development Fund for the remainder of the cash.

If funding is secured, it is hoped that work would begin in 2018 and would be completed by 2020.