PLANS to turn a 17th Century mansion into an autism centre of excellence were approved by councillors last night.

Castlebeck Care wants to change the use of the Newbus Arms Hotel, in Hurworth Road, Neasham, into a care home for autism sufferers and other people with communication problems.

But villagers condemned the plans, raising objections regarding potential noise nuisance, increased volumes of traffic, fears that residents would be allowed to wander, and concern for the grade II- listed building.

Castlebeck has said the care centre will cater for up to 18 people, aged 18 to 55, who would be referred by the NHS and social services.

Speaking at the planning meeting, Dr Jonathan Mann, of Castlebeck Care, said: "Castlebeck has been in operation for 16 years in this area and we believe we have established a good reputation locally and nationally.

"Of particular note is the fact that we take pride in the physical appearance of the buildings that are our homes.

"Newbus will cater for autistic people and those with communication difficulties who are highly dependent on others for 24-hour care.

"We understand the worries of residents. If we moved to Newbus we would want to maintain good relations with the local residents."

Castlebeck also reassured local people that the residents would be no danger to others.

The Newbus Arms Hotel was closed last year amid controversy as scores of couples were forced to make alternative wedding plans.

Councillors approved the plans providing Castlebeck gives £25,000 towards building a footpath between Neasham and Hurworth.