PLANS to open a new care home in Darlington are to be referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment.

St Martins Care, which owns homes throughout the North-East, has applied for planning permission to build a care home in the town's Riverside Way.

The 61-bed care home would be built on vacant land near the River Skerne.

The area has been designated as open land but, under Government guidelines, development is allowed in certain situations.

Since the company applied for planning permission, Darlington Borough Council has received eight letters of objection from residents, some complaining about the loss of the open space.

They have expressed concern that the land could no longer be used as a children's play area, and have suggested that the care home would cause unnecessary traffic and noise.

But a report prepared by Darlington council officers said: "Access and parking provision to the site is considered acceptable.

"The parking area is located next to a house in Hutton Avenue, but it will be separated by landscaping and a fence, which will reduce the impact of any activity in the car park.

"Traffic generation from such homes is generally moderate and should not give rise to problems."

The provision of care homes in Darlington became a problem when the Government announced new rules on standards of care.

The standards, which include making sure all rooms are en-suite, forced some private care businesses to shut homes because they could not afford the improvements, and the council decided to close all its own facilities.

The closures have concerned objectors, who fear the new home may not remain open for long.

One objector said: "We are concerned that so many existing care homes are closing.

"What is the economic validity of this new home? Will it close down, leaving us with an empty building?"

The council will meet next Wednesday to discuss the application, but councillors will be recommended to approve the scheme.

However, because the land is designated as open space, the application must be referred to the Secretary of State before permission can be granted.