Blue Sky thinking takes off

Jean Scott, Paul Claridge, Jean Gardner, Helen Shaw and Val Seddon from the Widdrington Regeneration Partnership  who are behind the Blue Sky Forest project.
Jean Scott, Paul Claridge, Jean Gardner, Helen Shaw and Val Seddon from the Widdrington Regeneration Partnership who are behind the Blue Sky Forest project.

MULTI-MILLION regeneration plans for Northumberland villages are moving forward, 10 years after the blight of foot-and-mouth disease.

The Widdrington Regeneration Partnership (WRP) has announced that several business partners have now come on board its ambitious Blue Sky Forest project to develop a sport, leisure and tourism complex on restored opencast land.

The scheme is set to incorporate an international-standard golf course, the longest in Europe, with a golf academy, 300-bed hotel and spa, a dry ski slope, go karts, a holiday village and indoor leisure centre.

Under new proposals there would be a national sporting academy.

And there would also be a 15-turbine wind farm and other renewable energy schemes, with a visitor centre to show how they work.

The WRP project was born out of the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, which saw mass protests as more than 150,000 sheep and cattle carcasses were buried in giant pits off the A1068.

After the crisis, protesters decided to give the strong community spirit a new focus by drawing up regeneration plans.

Now, on the tenth anniversary of the FMD outbreak, the work seems to be coming to fruition.

WRP member and parish councillor James Grant said: “The new start for us came out of foot-and-mouth disease ten years ago.

“It was the first time all the communities had come together like that and it would have been a shame if we missed the opportunity that brought. We had a chance to shape our own future, which is what we did with WRP and particularly the Blue Sky Forest project.”

Coun Grant said the entire scheme, which would be developed in phases, would provide around 800 on-site jobs and 1,000 jobs off-site, filling the employment gap left by the completion of opencast sites and providing new opportunities.

“This is going to secure the future of the economy in this area for a number of years to come and give people pride in the area, confidence and dignity to know that they have earned the money,” he said.

Proposals were put forward in 2004 and revised in 2008, but investment was required from private business to get the scheme off the ground.

Now leisure development company Stoneheads is planning the golf aspects and Sir Bert Millichip (Sports), which was founded by the former FA Chairman, is backing an academy to develop skills across a wide range of sports, including football, rugby, hockey, tennis and netball. The vision is for national stars to pass on their experience to youngsters.

Controversially, the first phase of the scheme will involve Peel Energy developing a 15-turbine wind farm.

However, WRP Chairman Valerie Seddon says the company will create access roads and install electricity connections for the whole 2,500-acre regeneration site, and the turbines should be seen as part of a renewable energy package, including solar panels, ground source heat pumps, biomass and hydro power.

“When we were looking at Blue Sky Forest we realised that we had to provide a percentage of renewable energy for the scheme because it was required by the Government,” she said.

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“Peel Energy was asked to look into various options of renewables and it has come up with a scheme that it feels will provide the energy needed for the site. Some of the energy can also be sent to the National Grid.

“We also want a renewable energy centre so people can come and have a look at the scheme and then pick up information about the different types of renewable energy and maybe use them at home.”

Novera Energy has recently faced objection to plans to erect four turbines near Widdrington, but Coun Seddon says the Peel scheme, which would have a golf course running through it, would be further away from homes and fit into the environment.

“The Novera scheme would be very close to the village, this one is much further away, about two-and-a-half times the distance north and west,” she said.

“It would be on land that has already started to be landscaped so there shouldn’t be the same impact or noise as the Novera scheme at all.”

Land owner UK Coal has been working closely with the WRP to progress the plans.

Eddie Peat, representing the company, said: “Stoneheads have created numerous golf course developments and are acknowledged leaders in the field, whilst Peel Energy has great expertise in wind farm development and operation.

“Working together, we expect the academy, golf course and wind farm projects to be right at the heart of Blue Sky Forest over the coming years.

“It is a magnificent concept that will put Blue Sky Forest and Northumberland right on the tourist map.”

Public exhibitions of the plans will take place next month. They will be held at Widdrington WI Hall on Wednesday, March 16, Hadston House on Thursday, March 17 and Widdrington Community Centre on Friday, March 18. All will run from 2pm to 8pm.

A planning application for the first phase of the project is expected to be submitted later this year.