PLANS to convert a former County Durham garden centre into a builders' merchants have been given the go-ahead, despite objections from residents.

Last year, plans were lodged for the Olivers Garden Centre site at Holmhill Lane, Chester Moor, near Chester-le-Street.

The site has been empty for around three years, except for when it was occupied by caravan and car storage.

A council report states enforcement action was taken against these “unauthorised uses.” Joseph Parr Ltd, of Stockton, which submitted plans, said it aimed to improve the site and boost the area.

This includes re-cladding the existing building, new open storage areas and extra car parking, alongside the creation of nearly 20 jobs.

During consultation, around 26 objections were lodged mainly around highway safety and development on the green belt.

Opposition came from neighbours, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and North Durham MP Kevan Jones, who wrote to the council.

The MP raised concerns about the potential hazards of large vehicles turning to access the site on the A167 dual carriageway.

Despite this, the plans were approved by Durham County Council’s planning chiefs using delegated authority.

Although “substantial weight” was given to the potential harm to the green belt, a planning report states, planners said that the development “does not affect openness.”

The economic benefits from the builders merchants and bringing a brownfield site back into use were also seen as positives.

The report goes on to say: “There have been no other issues identified – including through the assessment of residents’ and other objectors’ significant concerns regarding highway safety – that either outweigh this conclusion, or that cannot be controlled to reasonable degree by the imposition of appropriate conditions.”

Approved opening hours include Monday to Friday, 7am-5pm and Saturday, 7am-12noon. Under planning conditions, an improved site access and gates need to be built before the builders merchants can open.

Checks will also be put in place to ensure the development does not “compromise the safety or operation of the adjacent railway.

Residents who objected to the plans have reacted with anger to the decision, saying it should have been taken to a council meeting for discussion.

David Holding, speaking on behalf the Chester Moor Community Group said: "It is quite clear to us that it had to be taken to the committee. We were told that the chief planning officer had almost total discretion over what goes to committee and what doesn't. But there are things in the policy that mean it should have gone to committee.

“The development is contrary to the county’s own policies on Green Belt and those of central government. There are other vacant sites availablewithin a short distance."