A LOCAL authority pressing ahead with controversial plans to build extensive garden villages on the outskirts of a town is facing claims residents have been “digitally excluded” from helping shape the latest stage of the plan.

Darlington Borough Council has moved to defend the amount of opportunity residents have been given to comment on its Local Plan as the latest period when residents could voice their views on the blueprint by which the development of the borough will be shaped until 2036 drew to a close.

The comments came as as members approved a revised timetable for introducing the Local Plan and questions resurfaced over where rises in traffic in residential areas will go as a huge proposed development is built to the north of the town.

Councillor Nick Wallis told a cabinet meeting that in January officers had advised the possible access routes to the Skerningham garden village were through Springfield Park, Whinbush Way or Barmpton Lane, but other access points were possible if the Springfield Park road not go ahead.

He said officers had concluded both Whinbush Way and Barmpton Lane faced significant increases in traffic unless alternative access points on Whinbush Way, another on Sparrow Hall Drive and one from Whitebridge Drive to Beauly Drive were included.

Councillor Alan Marshall, the authority’s economy cabinet member, said he would investigate whether the alternative access points remained part of the Skerningham scheme.

Plans to help solve the housing crisis by building a garden village in Skerningham, featuring 4,500 homes, business premises, shops and leisure facilities, close to a proposed link road, have proved contentious since they were first announced in 2017.

Earlier this year the authority was accused of failing to ensure residents had a good opportunity to comment on the plan and as the latest consultation closed, Whinfield Residents Association raised concerns that many residents who did not have internet access had been unable to participate fully and had been “digitally excluded”.

The association said it had alerted the council to the issue, but the authority seemed “more interested in pushing this plan through regardless of whether or not fair and proportionate engagement is achieved with the residents of the borough”.

Cllr Marshall said the Local Plan progress had been interrupted by the pandemic as the authority wanted to enable as many people as possible to comment.

He said the next stage of the Local Plan should have happened in April, but was de;ayed as people who were shielding could be disadvantaged, a situation exacerbated by the closure of the council offices and libraries where paper copies of the plans could be studied.

Cllr Marshall said: “As soon as shielding ended and the Town Hall was reopened, combined with the Government introducing temporary legislation to allow local authorities to progress Local Plans without making paper copies available, the council decided to place the plan on deposit for the public to make representations.”

He added, over and above its legal obligations, the council had also arranged for people to view a paper copy of the plan in a sanitised booth in the Town Hall.