IT was meant to put Weardale on the international map - a pioneering development deemed “absolutely critical” to the future of the dale, and one that would place it at the forefront of a new green revolution.

The former Blue Circle cement works in Eastgate, near Stanhope, was to be transformed into a renewable energy village with the potential to create up to 350 jobs. There would be 65 homes, a hotel, business units and leisure and entertainment facilities. And, as an added draw, it would be the only site in the country to be powered by all five forms of land-based renewable energy. This was to include geothermal power, sourced by drilling deep into the underground hot rocks and used to heat buildings and a spa pool.

Many residents branded it 'eco-Disney', arguing it would dwarf the village of Eastgate and spoil the tranquility of the area; others saw it as the last hope for a community still struggling to recover from the closure of the cement works in 2002.

The Weardale Task Force, set up to in the wake of the closure, spent millions of pounds developing plans for the site and drilling bore holes to test for hot rocks. The partnership, including representatives from Durham County Council, Wear Valley District Council, the cement works owner Lafarge and the regeneration agency One North East, explored everything from indoor ski slopes to a Mr Bean theme park before settling on the eco village. In one report, it was even suggested cement workers retrain as beekeepers.

But despite all this time and money, there is little on the site today but a large concrete slab, a stark reminder of all that has been lost.

Planning permission was granted in 2009 but by then the recession had hit. Shortly afterwards, One North East funding cuts saw £1m earmarked for the scheme withdrawn, and the agency was finally abolished in 2012.

In 2015, Lafarge sold the site to a private individual and since then the only activity to take place there is the filming of the axed ITV series Beowulf.

Durham County Council has supported more than 1,000 people in the Wear Valley area into employment since 2009 through its DurhamWorks and apprenticeship schemes, and the authority says it is happy to work with the owner to develop the site.

But many in Weardale feel let down, not least those who once worked at the cement works.

Les Blackett was in his forties and had two teenage children when he and the other 146 workers found out they were to lose their jobs. He managed to secure a similar job in Dunbar in Scotland but this meant living away from his family in caravan on weekdays for a decade.

“They spent a heck of a lot of money but nothing has come of it,” said Mr Blackett.

“I know the banking crash did not help but I'm not sure if it was the best idea to start with. If people are looking for jobs they have to move out of the dale or travel. There are few opportunities for young people.”

Weardale councillor John Shuttleworth was heavily involved in the campaign to save the cement works, travelling to Lafarge’s head office in Paris to protest alongside workers.

Like many, he was unconvinced about the energy village but eventually backed it, describing it as the “only show in town.”

He is now calling on the council to invest the £500,000 still earmarked for Eastgate into creating permanent job opportunities in Weardale.

“When the cement works closed 57 families left Weardale and 70 kids were taken out of the schools,” he said.

"If there are no kids and young families there will be no schools and we will end up with an unbalanced population made up mainly of retired people.

“Tens of thousands of pounds was spent on a report telling people to retrain as beekeepers. All of that money has been wasted as not one job has been created."

Sarah Robson, head of economic development at Durham County Council, said: “Although we don’t own the former cement works, we have always supported the redevelopment of the site by any interested parties.

“We invested £112,000 in 2009/10 to try and stimulate investment in the former works premises whilst there was considerable funding from other organisations, such as One North East.

“In order to support regeneration, we have set aside in the region of £500,000 in our capital budget should that be necessary to support development."

She added: “We believe County Durham has a lot to offer prospective businesses and we’ll continue to advertise the vast wealth of skills and talent we have throughout our towns and villages.”

The Northern Echo:


DAVID Heatherington is a lifelong Weardale resident and has been involved in the running of Weardale Museum since it opened in 1984. He joined Weardale Visitor Network in 2002.

"The Weardale Task Force decided from the beginning that tourism was the one and only driver of the Weardale economy and the eco village project was a well-intentioned response to the loss of over 100 jobs at the cement works.

“However, all alternative proposals were dismissed and thousands of pounds were spent on consultancies, drilling and task force salaries with not one job produced for Weardale. 

“It created angst in Eastgate and a great deal of cynicism for tourism among some Weardale residents who have seen services closed while the lights of Lumiere shine brightly for businesses in Durham City. 

“Weardale has moved on, people have either left the dale or commute to find jobs outside and the urgent need to replace those jobs has gone.

“However, if tourism is really the only economic driver for Weardale we have yet to see from Durham County Council the investment in infrastructure and the strategic thinking which will support and sustain a flourishing tourist economy. 

“Projects like the eco village are best left to entrepreneurs like Jonathan Ruffer and Tim Smit, who have a real passion for the venture and who will move heaven and earth to pull them off. The task force disbanded when the going got tough.”