Workers and "champions" are celebrating after a new countryside centre helping young people with learning difficulties was approved.

Supporters and staff of the proposed Five Acres Community Garden turned up to hear their "dream" project finally get the go-ahead at Darlington Town Hall.

Director Debbie Iceton said: "I'm absolutely ecstatic. It's just a dream come true. It's something new and exciting and obviously its close to my heart.

"It's just an absolute necessity." 

Five Acres gained planning permission to use five small fields as a rural day centre for school leavers with learning difficulties.

It will include a barn, kitchen, polytunnels, sensory gardens and animal areas, run by qualified staff and volunteers on Lime Lane, Brafferton.

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The organisation will continue to work from its current home at the ROF 59 Activity Centre in Newton Aycliffe, but now has approval to build the gated and fenced countryside facility with animals including chickens, rabbits, ponies and goats.

It aims to support its young "champions" to flourish, learn and socialise with animal care, gardening, growing flowers and crops, arts, crafts and woodwork, and to introduce them to the world of work.

Abi Smith, speaking for Five Acres, said to councillors the new project had attracted £73,000 in investment, was expected to bring 10 to 15 full-time jobs and would give users the care, education and attention which was their "God-given right".

She said: "We have 32 champions and their families, waiting in the wings, wearing their T-shirts hoping that you help grow our continued dream.

The Northern Echo: Abi Smith (centre) with staff and champions from Five Acres celebrate outside Darlington Town Hall after gaining planning permission for a day centre. Picture: Gareth Lightfoot.Abi Smith (centre) with staff and champions from Five Acres celebrate outside Darlington Town Hall after gaining planning permission for a day centre. Picture: Gareth Lightfoot.

"Many testimonials all describe a happy wonderful community where the full family is supported but most importantly the champion is challenged constantly to reach their full potential by participating in wonderful activities.

"Lime Lane will work as an independent facility and will accommodate 30 to 40 further champions.

"I believe it will provide vital day services and opportunities for champions. All of our young people should have the opportunity to thrive."

She told the Darlington Borough Council planning committee of a 29-year-old champion who was supported to speak for the first time: "Nothing short of life-changing, not just for each champion but their whole family."

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Craig Kipling, agent for the developer, said: "The proposal is for a much-needed facility which will offer young adults with learning difficulties a safe place to learn life skills and offer families a degree of respite knowing their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters are enjoying themselves and improving their quality of life."

The plan received 72 letters of support, many from people whose children used the Newton Aycliffe facility, saying it would provide an invaluable life-enhancing service offering "endless opportunities".

Supporters included a care centre leader, council mentor and career guidance advisor, county councillor, town councillors, and the chairman and chief executive of County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust.

Planning officers recommended approval, saying the rural facility with coach service would significantly benefit the community.

The plan was delayed as councillors concerned about safety issues asked to visit the site.

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In the latest meeting, Councillor Gerald Lee said: "I'm quite satisfied that there will be no problems. I'm more than happy with the application."

The committee approve the plan unanimously. The words "thank you" were heard from the public gallery.

Ms Smith said outside: "We're elated. This is three years in the making, and the need is there.

"This will bring incredible changes to young people in our community. They're here today. They're on cloud nine, very emotional."


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