A controversial "incinerator" scheme could help alleviate local fuel poverty, a public inquiry has heard.

A government-appointed inspector was told of the potential benefits of the Hownsgill Energy Centre scheme, including an investment of up to £47.5m and a possible boost to demand and jobs.

However a council planning officer has said limited or no weight should be given to proposed benefits which he maintained were "lacking in substance".

Project Genesis is appealing against the council's refusal of planning permission for an energy from waste facility, which would process up to 60,000 tonnes of fuel per year from non-recyclable commercial and industrial waste at Hownsgill Industrial Park in Consett.

Read more: Crowds of objectors protest against proposed energy centre

Chris Shields, a senior planning officer for Durham County Council, gave evidence to the inquiry at County Hall on Tuesday (August 16).

He read from his statement: "I maintain the opinion that the harm to both designated and non-designated landscapes, and to designated heritages is unacceptable."

He said proposed benefits such as a district heating system, support for new and existing businesses and a community energy company could not be given great weight, citing factors like a lack of detail, infrastructure, obligations or conditions.

He argued the proposed plant with a 50m-high chimney stack would cause harm to the landscape and the heritage asset of a listed farmhouse, not outweighed by public benefits.

Read more: Residents speak against 'bad neighbour' incinerator plan

Project Genesis' representative Andrew Tabachnik QC challenged Mr Shields' evidence, asking: "Your evidence is that the public benefits put forward in support of this scheme are lacking in substance. Does that remain your position?" Mr Shields replied: "Yes."

Mr Tabachnik said the plan would involve £30m in construction costs, £10m for a district heat power network and £3.6m to £7.5m to enable a nearby solar farm plan otherwise deemed "not viable".

He said: "We're looking at an investment into the local area of somewhere between £43.6m and £47.5m just on those items."

The Northern Echo: Mark Short, managing director of Project Genesis, at Hownsgill Industrial Park, Consett. Picture Gareth Lightfoot.Mark Short, managing director of Project Genesis, at Hownsgill Industrial Park, Consett. Picture Gareth Lightfoot.

He spoke of a £120,000-per-year scheme proposed to alleviate fuel poverty if the scheme goes ahead: "It goes via the trust to people who demonstrate they're in fuel poverty.

"It's a significant benefit that the trust of Project Genesis can facilitate £120,000 or so of fuel poverty alleviation in this area to people who really need it, and will really need it this winter when they have to decide how many days they don't heat their houses for. That's right, isn't it?"

Mr Shields replied: "That's right."

Read more: County Durham incinerator told it will be 'barely noticeable'

Mr Tabachnik said the industrial estate had struggled to attract businesses, with just one development coming forward in five years with £1m in EU and local enterprise grants.

He said the plan going ahead could be the "catalyst" for land around it being developed: "That itself would be a good thing, wouldn't it?"

Mr Shields said: "It would if that was necessarily the case but it's quite speculative of the appellant to assume that it will be the catalyst to do that."

The Northern Echo: Campaigner Christine Thomas with objectors to the Consett energy from waste plan at Hownsgill Industrial Park. Picture Gareth Lightfoot.Campaigner Christine Thomas with objectors to the Consett energy from waste plan at Hownsgill Industrial Park. Picture Gareth Lightfoot.

Mr Tabachnik said a proposal for discounted heat and power from the scheme would be beneficial, with letters of interest from people on nearby land and no objections to the plan from occupiers on the industrial park.

He said this energy exported from the site was likely to attract more businesses to the industrial park, creating demand, bringing jobs and helping to make the town centre more sustainable.

Read more: Consett incinerator objectors tell inquiry it would be a 'blight' on landscape

He said: "This scheme offers the possibility of coming forward in a way that in a few years' time, people will be pointing to Consett and saying, 'That's how you do a waste proposal linked to a credible district heat and power network.'"

Mr Shields answered: "If that was to actually be delivered as you say, it's potentially a good example of that."

Mr Tabachnik said the network could fit into a "vital component of decarbonising heat", referring to government policy that energy from waste was the "best available option" for unrecyclable waste.

He said it would stop waste making cross-boundary journeys, with 609,000 tonnes of regional waste currently going to landfill and 365,000 tonnes going out of the North-east or abroad.

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