Leisure project could hinge on decision

AN ambitious multi-million pound vision for tourism, sporting and leisure facilities in Northumberland could be dead in the water if an application for a windfarm is knocked back, councillors have been told.

East Chevington Parish Council heard on Monday night that the Blue Sky Forest (BSF) project could ‘be over’ if a bid for 13 turbines is not successful.

The BSF scheme is the brainchild of the Widdrington Regeneration Partnership (WRP) and landowner UK Coal to turn former opencast areas at Steadsburn, Stobswood and Maidens Hall into a national visitor attraction.

The plans include an international standard golf course, equestrian centre, holiday village and hotel and other facilities.

On top of this, a windfarm, developed by Peel Energy, has been integrated into the scheme and an application for the turbines is expected to be lodged this year, ahead of the wider BSF bid.

But Patrick Keogh, development manager for Peel Energy, has said an unsuccessful windfarm bid could potentially spell the end of the BSF project, but added that the final decision would lie with UK Coal.

Peel Energy would lay the foundations for the site by creating access roads and installing essential electricity network connections, and Mr Keogh told members at East Chevington that the windfarm, which would generate renewable energy, would offer the wider scheme commercial viability.

And Mr Keogh said: “I would say that if the windfarm fails at the planning stage, then the project is over. The project could not continue without a windfarm. It wouldn’t be sustainable.”

Yesterday, Widdrington Village Parish Council chairman Val Seddon admitted that it would be ‘a concern’ if the turbine bid failed, but it would not necessarily spell the end of the BSF project.

She said that the ‘best way’ to provide infrastructure and electricity connection at the site would be through the windfarm application.

But she added: “We have developers for the rest of the activities in place. Yes it would cost more if those turbines didn’t go ahead but hopefully developers would still see the opportunities there, because they are immense.”

Plans for the BSF scheme are taking shape, with finance and developers in place.

A steering group has been set up, which includes the likes of Stoneheads Associates, Place Developments, UK Coal and the community through the WRP, in partnership with Northumberland County Council, to progress the application.

It is hoped that the BSF bid will be submitted in the first half of next year.

The project is designed to be carbon neutral, with solar panels on buildings and work taking place with Newcastle University to use bio-crops.

Coun Seddon said: “We are hoping both aspects – the renewable side and the rest of the development – will get planning consent.

If the windfarm fails it would be a concern, however, we feel we have got a good mix of renewables coming into the site so hopefully that will be considered at the planning stage. It is not just turbines. We have got other renewables as well.”

Mr Keogh was speaking to East Chevington following members’ concerns that the windfarm would be the only part of the scheme that would be built.

Coun Scott Dickinson, chairman of the parish council, said there was a feeling that the BSF project was a ‘sweetener to make the medicine taste better’ but that ‘sweetener would never materialise’.

Mr Keogh tried to allay these fears.

“It is fair to say that the developers sat around the table are very keen to take it forward. They see it as a real project, he said.

“There are developers out there who want to deliver it. The proposal for the BSF project is real.”

The turbines are set to be 125-metres high to the tip and sited at least 700metres away from homes.

Mr Keogh said that the closest turbine to Widdrington Village would be one kilometre away while the nearest to Hadston and Red Row would be 1.2k away.

The turbines would generate around 15,500 homes with electricity.

Noise surveys have shown that background noise levels are relatively low while levels of ecology are low.

A community benefit fund would be set up and would run for 25 years.

Public exhibitions will take place on October 19, 20 and 21 in local venues to update residents on the windfarm application, while people will be informed on any progress made on the wider project.

Residents are to be informed about this.

l For more East Chevington Parish Council news, see P8