Battle lines have been drawn up over a proposed major development in what has been described as one of the most sensitive landscape sites in England.
Northumberland National Park Authority plans an £11m visitor and landscape discovery centre, called The Sill, with cafe, offices, and retail at Once Brewed on the central section of Hadrian’s Wall.
The scheme includes an 87-space car park and a 93-space overflow car park.
It would replace the existing 1970s Once Brewed national park visitor centre, while a new 86-bed youth hostel would replace the existing YHA facilities on the site.
The development would cover 3.2 hectares directly to the south of the B6318 Military Road, within the Hadrian’s Wall world heritage site buffer zone.
The park authority’s development management committee is being advised to approve the bid at its meeting on Wednesday.
There have been 17 letters of objection and 15 in support.
Supporters range from Northumberland County and Carlisle City councils to the National Trust, with objectors including the neighbouring Vindolanda Trust and the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.
A report to the committee by Stuart Evans, Sill project director and park head of corporate services, says that the existing Once Brewed visitor centre is dilapidated and does not befit its location, with the visitor experience suffering as a result.
The aim of the scheme has been to create a building which sits comfortably within the landscape and reflects the character of the national park.
The report says the proposal is a major development in the national park.
“The proposal is intended to be a key driver to achieve the national park’s ambition to make the park accessible to a wider and more diverse audience,” says the report.
The target is to attract 100,000 visitors a year. Visitor numbers to the existing centre have fallen from 65,000 in 2008 to 42,000 in 2012. The park believes this is due to the declining quality of the facilities.
The park authority has been unable to continue to operate visitor centres in Rothbury or Ingram because they are not financially viable.
The Once Brewed centre is losing £50,000 a year with a projected drop in visitor numbers to 31,000 by 2018.
Both the existing centre and the YHA hostel were in danger of closure by then.
The report says the development of The Sill would generate £2.6m a year for the economy and create the equivalent of 117 jobs.
While the majority of the uses would be linked to tourism and recreation, The Sill would include an offices hub for small businesses, and a year-round activities programme would pull in more visitors.
”It is considered that the development of the site is essential, due to the declining visitor numbers and the poor quality of the existing buildings, which fall a very long way short of the facilities people expect,” says the report.
“It is considered that the development can be successfully accommodated within this important landscape.
“Doing nothing would mean that the existing YHA and visitor centre would continue to decline and potentially close and would mean that the potential economic and social benefits would be lost.
“Not allowing the application would see the opportunity to achieve these benefits through a scheme that is unique to the UK’s national parks lost.
“The economic benefits and significant increase in opportunities for visitor recreation, education and understanding of the national park’s special qualities are considered to outweigh the presumption against major development.”
Among supporters of The Sill scheme are:
Carlisle City Council, who say: “The opportunities presented by this proposal are simply too important to risk losing. The Sill will entail positive social, economic and environmental benefits for a large area of Northern England.”
Northumberland County Council “considers the project will be important regionally and nationally.”
Northumberland-based explorer Conrad Dickinson: “The choice of location is ideal as it is the natural gateway to the park and the premier visitor destination. This visionary project raises the bar for Northumberland.”
Kielder Water and Forest Development Trust: “The centre will play a key role in encouraging visitors to explore Northumberland’s special landscape.”
The National Trust: “The trust fully supports the concept on the basis that it creates a unique offer.”
Northumberland College supports the scheme for its potential to provide rural skills training.
English Heritage has offered no objections to the scheme.
Among the objectors to The Sill scheme are:
* The Vindolanda Trust, which says: “We have serious and deep concerns. It is from the position of an established Roman archaeological and heritage organisation in the world heritage site with a long record of sustainable development that we make the following objection.
“The application is three times larger than the current building configuration
“The confluence of special and sensitive circumstances (location, heritage, landscape) means this site is probably one of the most challenging to develop in the whole of the North East if not in Europe.
“The proposed development is unacceptable in this significantly sensitive landscape.
“No account seems to have been taken of the fact that visitor numbers to the central section of Hadrian’s Wall have been declining for over 40 years despite millions of pounds of investment.
“We are concerned that the centre will fail to meet its business aims
“The development does not respect or enhance the landscape setting of this part of the world heritage site and will forever alter the unique Roman spirit of place at this iconic part of Hadrian’s Wall.”
* Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne: “The society has been involved in the research and conservation of Hadrian’s Wall and its setting throughout two centuries.
“The proposed structure is of a scale that will drastically intrude on an unspoiled historic landscape of supreme visual value.”
“The architectural conception is wholly at odds with the sense of remoteness which enchants so many visitors to the central sector of the Wall.
“The new centre is likely to take visitors away from other attractions and have an adverse impact on their viability.”
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