Blue Sky thinking wins support from villagers

Blue Sky Forest partners showing the Widdrington Station community their ideas to transform the former mining land in the area.

Blue Sky Forest partners showing the Widdrington Station community their ideas to transform the former mining land in the area.

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MULTI-MILLION pound leisure plans for former mining communities have found huge support with locals.

Last month, the Herald revealed more details of the Widdrington Regeneration Partnership’s (WRP) Blue Sky Forest scheme, with plans firming up for championship and municipal golf courses, a sports academy, hotel and wind farm.

More information was presented to villagers in Widdrington, Hadston and Widdrington Station last week in a series of exhibitions.

And long-term proposals for the 2,500 acres of land from the West Chevington, Stobswood and Maidens Hall opencast sites were also detailed, including a ski slope, driving experience, water sports, events centre, adventure centre, children’s activity centre, holiday village, indoor leisure centre and equine facilities.

Partners involved in the plans include landowner UK Coal, sports academy specialist Sir Bert Millichip (Sports), golf course construction expert Stoneheads Associates, consultancy Wardell Armstrong and wind farm developer Peel Energy.

The proposal for a 15-turbine wind farm lies at the centre of the ambitious development as, along with other renewable energy sources, it would help the site to become carbon neutral and crucially provide the infrastructure for other projects.

Around 150 people visited the exhibitions and organisers say the vast majority were positive, though questionnaires are still being analysed.

Widdrington Station and Stobswood Parish Chairman Joe Sennett said: “I am totally behind this project. They have been on with it for ten years and this will come to fruition, there is no doubt about it.

“There are one or two people that have said no to it, but the majority are saying yes.

“There are big names on board so if they are prepared to spend millions, and they are answerable to shareholders, they must think it is going to work. If they are prepared to put millions into this it can only be to the good of the area.”

And Lynemouth county councillor Milburn Douglas said: “I hope it comes to fruition.

“Some people are looking with cynicism at the wind turbines, but the follow on from that is the reality. These people are not looking to invest in a failure, they do their homework.

“There have been quite a few false dawns in this part of the world since the closure of the mines, but if you look for example at the Alnwick Garden, who would have thought that would be such a success? And Kielder is very popular. Once we get this up and running, it could be the Kielder of south east Northumberland.

“I think it is very positive and there is some good financial expertise behind it. For employment and regeneration, it is ideal.”

Residents at the Widdrington Station event were also positive.

Brenda Fordy-Scott said: “I like to see the opportunity to use the opencast restoration for the benefit of the community in whatever way the community sees fit, and if that is jobs and leisure it is an opportunity we can’t miss.

“I think a lot of people will say that if we get half of what is planned it would be wonderful.

“There are obviously people who don’t want all the traffic coming past their door and I can understand that, it is going to be about managing these things, but I think the site is big enough to be able to do that.

“For the young people, this is their future, they are the ones who will benefit. I would like more consultation and would like to see the young people more involved.”

Two residents concerned about traffic were Julia Corbett and Maureen Phelps, but both supported the plans.

Mrs Corbett said: “It is a lovely idea for attracting people to the area, but my main concern is transport links. These are small roads in country villages. I have lived in Mile Road for nine years and the traffic is terrible already because it is the only outlet for people to get to work.

“I am not against any of this though. There are young people who need work and it is not our future, it is theirs.”

Mrs Phelps added: “We moved here 23 years ago and the lane going past the corner of Stobswood opencast was a country lane. Now it is quite a big road. We would like new roads ideally for this.

“The first project should be something that will really take off and gives access to everyone. There are so many people who are struggling so we just want the best for the village and the young people.”

Village newcomer Carol Bruce said: “We moved to Widdrington about six months ago and this seems pretty fantastic. It is very positive. I don’t know personally that I would like the crowds, but I could avoid the traffic.”

And youngsters Josh Derbyshire and Jack Henderson were excited about the scheme.

Josh, 15, said: “It is very good. I’m a golf fan myself so I love it. It will bring people into this place and maybe give us some more shops.”

Jack, 14, added: “I’m interested in the football academy and the kayaking and 4x4 experience look good too.

“Someone told us about these plans when we were in Year 4, but we haven’t heard anything since. I’m in Year 9 now so that was five years ago. We’re pretty happy to see it all.”

However, one local businessman had a different view.

William Kiely, who owns Burgham Park Golf and Leisure Club, said the plans will make it tougher for existing facilities.

“There is an over-supply of golf courses in this area at the moment and all the golf clubs are finding it hard so two more golf courses aren’t really needed,” he said.

“I thought it was all supposed to go back to nature and wildlife after the opencast. I didn’t envisage anything like this.

“We’ve already got golf courses at Longhirst, Bedlington, Morpeth, Burgham and Linden Hall so we don’t need any more.”