Funding in place for major green tourism scheme

PLANS for a multi-million pound eco-friendly sports and tourism scheme for the Northumberland countryside could be submitted within months as finance and developers are in place.

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

The groups have been firming up the plans for years, but progress leapt forward in 2009 when a feasibility study was produced by consultants Wardell Armstrong and developers signed up, including Stoneheads Associates, Sir Bert Millichip (Sports) and Peel Energy.

Now Place Developments has also come on board and a steering group has been set up in partnership with Northumberland County Council, which could see a formal planning application submitted by Christmas.

WRP Chairman Val Seddon said: “We are now in a financial position to move this forward very quickly so we are hoping for an early planning application. We are looking at just a few months now whereas in the past we’ve talked about a year or a year-and-a-half down the line.

“It is very exciting. The fact that we have got these big international developers coming in and believing in us and believing in this area, and wanting to come here, I just think that is so amazing.”

The plans include provision for two golf courses, developed by Stoneheads, including one of international championship standard and the longest in Europe.

There would also be a lake, equestrian centre, adventure sports, a driving experience, dry ski slope, holiday village and hotel.

Initially a football academy was proposed by Sir Bert Millichip (Sports), but now a multi-sports national training centre is planned, taking in cricket, tennis, golf and hockey, among others.

All of the proposals will be included in a single outline planning application.

The whole development was expected to create 800 direct local jobs, but the estimate has been revised upwards and now the total could be more than 1,000.

“We are doing this for the community, that is the whole reason behind this,” said Coun Seddon.

“We are probably looking at it creating 1,000 jobs, possibly more, and all of the local businesses will hopefully be involved so they may be able to take on extra people as well.

“It could be extremely valuable to this area, which has been a deprived area with high unemployment.

“Obviously, such a big scheme won’t just affect this area, it will affect the whole of Northumberland and probably have an effect on the region as it draws tourists to the area.”

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

However, the biggest energy input would come from a 13-turbine windfarm, developed by Peel Energy.

Consultation on the scheme is under way and a planning application is expected to be submitted in November, ahead of the Blue Sky Forest bid.

However, Peel Energy Development Manager Patrick Keogh insists it will be part of the wider project as an anchor to the scheme.

“Even though Peel Energy is proposing the windfarm development, the rest of the project will follow,” he said.

“There has been a lot of suspicion that there will only be the windfarm. I can categorically state that that is not the case. All the developers are very keen to take this project forward.”

He said the windfarm will provide revenue, meet the project’s energy requirements and provide a grid connection and groundworks for the later development.

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Originally, the proposal was for 15 turbines, but after finding that background noise is low, it has been reduced to 13, which Mr Keogh said will be of similar height to the Scottish Power turbines at Lynemouth.

They will be sited at least 700m away from homes and all cabling would be underground.

A community benefits scheme would run for the 25-year life of the windfarm and locals will have the chance to buy shares in it.

The entire Blue Sky Forest plan, including the windfarm, will be presented to key stakeholders in a two day event in Stobswood later this month to make minor alterations.

And the masterplan will go on display at exhibitions in Widdrington Village, Widdrington Station and Hadston on 19, 20 and 21 October.

The WRP is also creating a consultation website for people to give their views.

Coun Seddon said: “The WRP will be at the exhibitions to talk to the public and answer any questions and listen to their comments because we want to know what local people think.

“I would encourage everybody to come along to the meetings and there will be other ways of getting their voices heard. There will be a questionnaire and the WRP is setting up a community consultation website soon so people can put their views on there.”