A PUBLIC inquiry that could block a controversial £40m development in a former steel town is under way.

It is being held to determine whether land at Belle Vue, Consett, should be granted village green status, making it exempt from development.

The application by the Consett Green Spaces Group is being opposed by Durham County Council, which owns the land and wants to build a £26m academy for 1,600 students and a sports centre on the site.

The group’s barrister, Cain Ormondroyd, said: “As far back as living memory goes, Belle Vue playing fields has been used extensively by local people for recreation.

“This use appears to have commenced even before it acquired its current name and appearance as a primarily grassed area laid out as sports pitches.”

The inquiry, which is expected to last most of the week, is being held at Consett Civic Centre, which will be demolished if the development goes ahead.

To obtain village green status, residents need to prove that the land was used for impromptu recreational activities for the past 20 years.

Mr Ormondroyd said 13 witnesses would be called to back up the claims, including Durham county councillor Owen Temple and former Derwentside District Council leader Alex Watson.

Group chairman John Campbell, 40, of Villa Real Road, Consett said: “Having used Belle Vue playing field extensively since 1985, I have witnessed many others using the field over the last 25 years.

“Many people walk their dogs all over the field, every day, all year round and at all times of the day.

“Local schools also use Belle Vue for sports day events, inter-school meetings and other activities.”

Barrister Edwin Simpson is presiding over the hearing, and will inspect the site later in the week.

Charles Mynors, representing Durham County Council, said recreational use of the four sports pitches on Belle Vue could only take place with local authority permission, adding: “It is not accepted that there has been sufficient indulgence in lawful sports and pastimes to justify registration. Even if there has been, it has been severely and continually interrupted by the matches and practice sessions played on the markedout pitches.”