A MAJOR restoration scheme for an historic country hall and estate which has fallen into a state of disrepair has been described as a “sea-change” in its fortunes.

Windlestone Hall and Park, near Ferryhill, was once home to 1950s Conservative Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden and later became a residential special school.

But since 2006, when its use as a school ended, the once grandiose Grade II* listed country mansion has become rundown and at risk of being lost altogether.

After changing hands several times – including its controversial sale by Durham County Council for just £240,000 - and seeing various redevelopment plans fail, the hall is set to be restored to its former glory.

Durham County Council’s county planning committee today approved plans for a large-scale renovation scheme, along with 13 new four and five-bed detached houses which will be sold to help pay for the wider development.

The main hall will be restored into a private residence and apartments, staff accommodation and events and wellness areas created and nine acres turned back into agricultural land.

The clock tower stables will be converted into a commercial area with a café, office and small retail units, an orangery events space built in the walled garden and the gardens and a lake reinstated.

A former basketball court will become a car park and other features and buildings will be reinstated such as a chapel, statues, temples and an estate office will be created in North Lodge.

In total, two Grade II* and more than 15 Grade II listed heritage assets on the site, which are currently at risk, will be saved.

An agent for the applicant – the charitable Windlestone Park Estate Preservation Trust – told the committee it had worked on the scheme for three years to ensure it could have a “transformational impact” on the area in economic, social and community terms.

He said it would contribute £15.8m to the economy through its restoration, £1m a year going forward and create up to 34 fulltime jobs.

He said: “This is a one-off opportunity to see a much-neglected site return to that best possible use , that for which it was built – a grand country house with a working, long-term viable estate.

“It is accepted by both Heritage England and officers that this outcome is far better than anything that could have reasonable could to expect.

“Heritage England describe it as a sea change in the fortunes of Windlestone Hall.”

He said public access to the grounds was planned because it is important to the applicant that everyone from Durham benefits from the scheme, adding: “The estate was built on the backs of local people and coal and the time is right, for the first time in 550 years, that the public should be invited to benefit from this very special place.”

He added: “The people of County Durham would not forgive us for missing this opportunity to set it on a steady course for generations to come.”

Members heard that council officers and Heritage England felt the new housing element of the scheme, which goes against planning policy by building in a countryside setting, could be allowed as an enabling development – meaning it will help pay for the restoration of the heritage assets.

Councillor Julie Cairns, the newly-elected councillor for Chilton, which covers the site, was unable to attend the meeting but made comments by letter which were read out to members.

She wrote: “I am delighted Windlestone Hall has come into the ownership of an organisation which feels not only duty-bound to reimagine Windlestone Hall in its previous glory but also has the care, passion and expertise to undertake this valuable restoration of a key piece of the history of Windlestone Hall and the outlying areas of Chilton and Rushyford.”

She said she had closely studied the proposals and visited the site and was pleased with the plan and intention of the applicant to integrate with the community and give residents access to the estate once the development is complete.

“What I have seen has completely bowled me over in terms of the overall vision, management of the project and the honest approach to the scheme and its need to not only to recreate the grounds, the building externally but also internally along with future development.

“It will allow Windlestone Hall to again take its rightful place in County Durham as one of the key historical buildings,” she wrote.

“The history of Windlestone Hall is important both socially and politically to the area in which it sits.

“By bringing it back to life we can also make it relevant to today.

“I whole-heartedly support this planning application and implore the county planning committee to fully support this application and ensure that they continue to take not only an interest but also be fully engaged in its journey to fruition.”

However the committee heard that along with 41 letters of support for the scheme, there were about 30 letters of objection.

Glenn McGill, a planning consultant representing Windlestone Hall Residents’ Group which objected to the plan, said: “There are three actors in this application.

“One, the applicant trying to achieve a major events venue on the site.

“Two, the residents trying to protect their residential amenity and enjoyment of living there.

“And three, the council which is the planning authority trying to find and promote a viable use for the site to correct past mistakes, which are evident online, and to realise economic benefits as well as, of course, restoration and heritage benefits, which I think everybody supports.”

Objectors raised numerous concerns including the building of new houses alongside historic works, the scale of the development, impact on residential amenity of around a dozen houses neighbouring the site and noise from the events venue.

They also voiced road safety concerns, with traffic accessing the site from the 60mph A689.

Highways said there had been two ‘slight’ collisions outside the grounds in five years, which were both put down to driver error.

Mr McGill added: “Our clients feel this application is seen in a favourable light but it is not quite the case.

“We like a lot of the things about it think the impact on residents but think the impact on residents could have been much better handled and a new application could deal with that. Don’t open Pandora’s box.”

Members unanimously approved the planning application and associated listed buildings consent for the work.