PLANNERS have been urged to reject a proposal to transform the site of the country’s first purpose-built prison into a 21st century leisure and retail hub.

Residents have appealed to Hambleton District Council’s planning committee, ahead of it examining the authority’s joint scheme with developers Wykeland Group to launch what has been described as “Northallerton’s most significant regeneration scheme for decades”.

While the authority says the £17m Treadmills scheme on the 3.5-acre site of Northallerton Prison – which closed almost five years ago – will create “an exciting new retail, leisure and business destination”, some residents claim it will exacerbate traffic issues, wreck heritage features and dominate the surrounding area.

The plans include a four-screen cinema with three restaurants underneath, a newly-created civic square and performance space, as well as a heritage centre displaying memorabilia and archives from the jail, shops, offices, flats and car parking.

The council says the conversion of the site’s five remaining listed former prison buildings, including the 1818 female wing, would be carried out sensitively.

But in a letter of objection over the scheme, Diane and Brian Jennings, of Romanby, said such was the historic importance of the women’s block that it should be preserved as a living museum.

Echoing other objections, they added the planned cinema was totally out of scale and sympathy with the nearby listed buildings.

They stated: “The proposed plans will totally destroy this valuable and irreplaceable part of the history of Northallerton and our nation.

“Northallerton Prison is famous throughout the country and should be preserved physically, not just in pictures on a wall or screen to view, in a foyer as proposed, or by calling the site Treadmills.”

Other residents said the development would aggravate traffic issues and the council should be encouraging the use of more than a dozen empty premises on the High Street before giving permission for more retail units.

Meanwhile, charitable venture Northallerton Forum, which regularly screens movies, has warned of the impact of the proposed cinema could have on its community activities.

Council leader, Councillor Mark Robson, said empty shop premises in the town were a reflection of the retail market and that with careful management traffic congestion in the area could be eased. He said: “Should the development be passed we expect that it will complement the High Street. You get a mixed reaction whatever you propose, but we believe it will be good for the county town.”

If the scheme receives planning consent it is anticipated building work will get underway in the spring.