OPTIMISM is growing that a multi-million pound tourism, sporting and leisure vision based on three Northumberland opencast coal mines will become a reality.
Partners behind the ambitious Blue Sky Forest project at Widdrington are holding a key meeting this month with the aim of devising a detailed masterplan and a mechanism for delivery.
They will hold a further round of public consultations next month and have set up a joint steering group with the county council and potential developers to work on a formal application for planning permission, which could be submitted within months.
Blue Sky Forest involves transforming 2,500 acres of land at the Stobswood, Maidens Hall and Steadsburn surface mines, and creating hundreds of jobs.
The scheme, which was updated and revised in a 2009 feasibility study by consultants Wardell Armstrong, includes two golf courses – one of them international-standard – a major multi-sport academy, a hotel, spa and holiday village, outdoor adventure centres.
It also includes a dry ski slope, a 4x4 driving experience, two lakes for watersports and recreation, equine facilities, an indoor leisure centre and the generation of renewable energy from a wind farm.
It has been developed by the local Widdrington Regeneration Partnership (WRP) working with UK Coal and renewables company Peel Energy, and the plans were displayed to local people six months ago.
Now a new report to county councillors by Stephen Stoney of Wardell Armstrong says more recent work has involved securing interest from developers, and several are now on board, including firms involved in leisure, sport and regeneration.
He says partners are now in a position to progress the project as a single entity, rather than a phased development over a number of years as previously envisaged. “This process will commence immediately with a two-day meeting in September with key stakeholders to develop the concept plan, and look to take the project forward from the current vision, concept and project outline toward a detailed masterplan and delivery plan,” he adds.
Last month the WRP presented the scheme to communities and local government minister Bob Neill when he visited the region.
The minister asked to be kept updated on progress and praised the involvement of the local community and UK Coal.
Mr Stoney says the new steering group will seek to move the project through the planning and regeneration process.
Yesterday Val Seddon, who chairs the WRP and Widdrington Parish Council, said Blue Sky Forest would be privately funded by developers, and the finances were now potentially in place.
She said: “We will be holding more public consultations in October and by then we will have updated the concept plan to ensure that the site is designed for what the community wants, and that the project is sustainable and will create jobs that are going to last.”