RESIDENTS have spoken of their fury over proposals to turn a former garden centre into a builders’ merchant’s premises – and say they are equally annoyed at how it has been handled by the local authority.

The former Foxwood, and then Oliver’s, Garden Centre, between Chester Moor and Chester-le-Street, has been empty for three years, except when it was occupied by caravan and car storage – against which enforcement action was taken.

Joseph Parr Ltd, of Stockton, has now applied to Durham County Council for planning consent to turn the site into a builders’ merchant. The firm says it will boost the area and they have already improved the site.

Resident David Holding said: “The community was not informed by letter. Only three notices were stuck on two poles some distance away from housing on December 18. Residents were given 21 days to comment, which included the Christmas and New Year period. This resulted in us knowing nothing about it until after the closure date, because it was only noticed when it was too late.”

He said objectors are concerned they will be denied the chance to put their views to councillors as they understand the matter will be decided by officers under their delegated authority.

Village community group chairman Peter Lawson said: “We are not NIMBYs and we recognise that appropriate development is desirable, but to place a builders’ merchant’s site in open countryside, in the Green Belt, is ludicrous.

“The proposal is contrary to all the county’s own policies on Green Belt and those of central government. There are vacant sites in business parks and close to main roads, within a short distance, so why come here?

“Such a business would generate deliveries by HGVs causing noise, pollution and road safety dangers, as well as movement of fork lift trucks around the site.

“We also anticipate drivers overshooting the entrance and either reversing on the narrow road outside or, having to avoid striking a low bridge under the adjoining main railway line.”

Following pressure, planning chiefs allowed comments to be made for a further week.

Stephen Reed, planning development manager the council, said: “In line with normal planning publicity requirements, we notified the immediate neighbouring properties and posted four notices about the application at the site.

“We are now looking at the application and giving careful consideration to the points raised by residents. This includes comments received after the standard 21-day consultation process, as is normal practice.

“In order to ensure decisions are made quickly, the Government encourages councils to use their delegated powers as much as possible and, aligned to this, we have developed clear guidelines on how applications are considered.”

Dave Anderson, managing director of Joseph Parr Ltd, said: "Our architects are working very closely with the local planning authority to ensure that our proposition meets every criteria required and turns what is now a derelict and unsightly building into a very clean and aesthetically pleasing showroom and site.

"There should be no site pollution, ours and delivery vehicles will have engines off when parked in the yard to reduce vehicle emissions, we recycle all plastic and cardboard and the site will include electric charging points for both staff and customers, my car is 100 per cent electric and more will join the fleet in time.

"We will be employing local staff with well-paid jobs and giving the people of the area a great experience for viewing and buying DIY, paving and building products, our business is only open during the day and Saturday mornings and no vehicles will be moving after hours.

"With regard to work on the site, the previous owners left a large amount of rubbish in the building including clothing, books, sofas, mattresses etc. I had seen rats around and with easy access to the building felt it could be a fire risk. I sent a team up to clear it out, we sorted it and took a lot to charity and removed the rest.

"Ironically, between Christmas and New Year the site was broken into with fencing removed, electric cable was ripped out of the building and toilets smashed. Again we had people on site to repair and reinforce the fencing.

"I have spoken to locals that live both down the lane and opposite the site all have been very positive and are looking forward to the site being open."