Campaigners have expressed their shock after the government appealed a decision to reject plans for a new prisoner reform centre to house sex offenders in a County Durham town centre, despite a public backlash.

Plans to convert Consett’s Highfield House to house ‘at risk’ prisoners as part of the Ministry of Justice’s ‘prisoner reform’ program were submitted in 2022 but quickly faced several objections from residents and the local MP.

The 16-bedroom building, which has remained derelict for years, is located less than 60 metres from a school and scout hut, which locals said would threaten the safety of children. The proposal to convert the site says outbuildings are due to be demolished to pave the way for a two-storey extension to expand the facilities but the plans have now been shelved.

However, Durham County Council planning officers rejected the proposal after saying the facility would “bring a significant fear of crime in relation to the presence of a specialist educational establishment that serves the 'most vulnerable young people’.

The Northern Echo: Highfield House, Consett, has been derelict for years Highfield House, Consett, has been derelict for years (Image: Durham County Council)

Billy Robson, CEO of Delta North, an independent school that offers students an ‘alternative’ education from students at mainstream schools, previously labelled the plans “shocking” and “a travesty”, and said news of the appeal has come as a shock. 

The 1st Consett Scout Group, who have their HQ just 50 metres from the boundary of Highfield House, said they were also worried about the wellbeing of the children. 

Mr Robson said: “Vulnerable young people in our school are going to be right next to high-risk offenders - it just doesn’t make sense. There’s no respect for what we’re doing and the other youth groups in the area. They don’t realise the knock-on effect it could have, we could lose the school because of it.  I’m absolutely gobsmacked.”

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The Northern Echo: Drawings of how the redevelopment of Highfield House could lookDrawings of how the redevelopment of Highfield House could look (Image: Ministry of Justice)

Despite the appeal, campaigners hope it will help raise further awareness of the controverisal plans. And their appeal has also been backed by the local MP, Conservative Richard Holden. "It would have been completely inappropriate to have such a facility located at the heart of a residential area near schools, youth clubs and vulnerable young people,” he said in January.

The appeal is due to be reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate.