A PROPOSAL to transform a huge derelict town centre building into a 24-hour cut-price gym could help solve health inequalities in an area where men can expect to live nearly 12 years less than men from a neighbouring ward.

North East-based gym firm OneGym, which offers membership at its Bishop Auckland, Newton Aycliffe, Redcar and Thornaby centres from £16.99 a month and day passes from £5.50, has applied for consent to change the use of the 1,816sq m former Sports Direct store overlooking the inner ring road and East Street.

The premises has stood empty since Sports Direct moved to Crown Street two years ago bring a prominent Darlington unit back to life. The site has had a chequered history with previous occupiers of the building including Magnet Bowl bowling alley, an MFI store, Movies nightclub, a public house and function room, and JJB Sports.

Like its Stockton gym, the OneGym centre in Darlington would be open continuously, seven days a week, “providing access to the whole community, including those who work irregular shift patterns”.

Documents lodged with Darlington Borough Council, state the gym would generate up to 15 full and part-time jobs, including management roles, personal trainers and cleaners and that self-employed fitness instructors will also be used at the centre featuring a main gym area, studio, free weights and spin areas, as well as saunas and showers.

The firm says it can offer relatively low-cost fees having “stripped out all unnecessary costs such as pushy sales teams, swimming pools and steam rooms and replaced them with what really matters... state of the art, beginner-friendly equipment, fantastic fitness classes, in a great space at convenient locations.”

A OneGym spokesman said: “The flexible, low-cost offer is particularly attractive to those on lower incomes. This in turn promotes healthier lifestyles, participation in sport, and consequently delivers social and economic benefits.

“It should be noted that approximately a third of OneGym members have not previously been members of a gym or health club and that the proposed development will therefore help to promote healthy and inclusive communities, while supporting a reduction in health inequalities.”

While Darlington is the second best-performing local authority regionally for both male and female life expectancy, at 78.2 years for men and 82.1 years for women, it still falls well short of the averages for England - 79.5 and 83.1 years respectively.

There is considerable variation in life expectancy within the area. Despite being a relatively compact town, men in Hurworth can expect to live 11.6 years longer than males on the other side of the A66 in Park East, the ward where the gym would be launched.

Women in Mowden will live, on average, for ten years longer than females in Bank Top, another ward just yards from the proposed gym.

In a 2017 report on health inequalities, Miriam Davidson, the council’s director of public health, stated: “People living in our most economically-deprived communities are not only more likely to have significantly shorter life expectancies when compared to those living in our most affluent communities, they’re also more likely to have shorter healthy life expectancies – that is, they are more likely to develop life-limiting illnesses and disabilities at a younger age than their counterparts living in less deprived areas.

Park East councillor Cyndi Hughes said:“I’m delighted to see the planning application for the former Sports Direct site as it signals an interest in investing in the town centre and Park East Ward.

“That site has been a particular eyesore, so the thought of improvement by way of a healthy and socially useful enterprise is really welcome.

“However, the public consultation on this planning application has just opened and it will run until the second of June. If residents have any comments, concerns or indeed, objections, planning officers and I would certainly like to hear about them.”