THE firm behind proposals to redevelop a former department store as a multi-million pound retail, residential or hotel complex say the scheme could have long-lasting conservation and regeneration benefits.

Planning applications to convert the old Beales store in Bishop Auckland, which has been vacant for more than two years, were submitted to Durham County Council earlier this year.

The Grade II listed building, on Newgate Street, was originally owned by the Co-Op in the 1870s but was later home to Beales until 2017.

The site's owner has drawn up two schemes which they hope, if approved, will attract a developer to take one forward. Both propose creating three commercial units on the ground floor for A1/A3 use such as shops and cafes and where one proposes a 62 bedroom hotel in the upper floors, the other proposes 27 apartments. Part of the rear of the building would be demolished and the existing facade would be restored.

The site in within the heart of the Bishop Auckland Heritage Action Zone, which was established to revitalise the market town and to help regenerate it as a vibrant place for local people, businesses and visitors. Bishop Auckland is going through a five-year programme to reinvigorate the market place and high street along with other parts of the conservation area, including Auckland Castle and its park.

Sean Hedley, managing director of Hedley Planning Services which represents applicant Multitrust Property Investment, said if the plans are approved, when the council hopes to consider them in October, there would be flexibility around its final use and it would herald an exciting new phase in the town centre’s regeneration.

He said: “With the site being Grade II-listed within a conservation area, there are always challenges to overcome and it will be up to the market to decide the ultimate development scheme. As planners, we want to see the creation of exciting, aspirational and rewarding schemes that leave a long-lasting legacy delivering conservation and regeneration benefits. This project will undoubtedly see a positive change to this important site, ensuring social and economic benefits chime well with the overall regeneration of Bishop Auckland’s town centre.”

The proposals are supported by many in the town for potentially bringing a big empty building back into use.

Bishop Auckland Town Council wants to see the building safeguarded and said retail units could improve the town's vitality and create jobs and the hotel would offer overnight accommodation particularly for visitors to The Auckland Project and Kynren attractions.

Durham police's crime prevention unit favours the hotel scheme over the flats, adding: "Such apartments, if they are to attract the wrong type of residents or absent landlords, could put even more demand on policing."

Though one resident described the hotel proposal as madness, saying the town already has three hotels standing empty.