Planners: Auckland Castle show may be history

29 May 2015

Auckland Castle

Auckland Castle

AMBITIOUS plans for the rejuvenation of the area around the former residence of the Bishops of Durham at Auckland Castle are facing their first hurdle.

Planners are recommending the refusal for a £24-million scheme to create a son-et-lumière spectacular celebrating 2000 years of British history and using 1000 volunteers on 120 acres adjoining the Castle.

They say that the noise and light pollution from up to 30 evening shows each summer would be too much for neighbouring homes.

The development would also threaten the habitats of protected wildlife, including bats and badgers.

The Eleven Arches project - named after a listed railway viaduct that crosses the site - is the lynchpin of a £94-million project by the philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer to turn the town of Bishop Auckland into a world-class tourist destination.

Revenue generated by the shows, estimated at more than £9 million annually, would be used to fund other cultural developments in the town. Mr Ruffer bought the Castle from the Church Commissioners in 2012 as part of a deal to ensure that its collection of Zurbarán paintings remained in the region ( News, 2 February 2012).

The project has been generally welcomed in the county as a significant boost to the local economy. Durham County Council planning officials remarked that it offered a "rare opportunity to secure a visitor attraction without comparison in the region". But, when councillors consider the plans next Tuesday, the recommendation to them will be to reject the application.

Durham's senior planning officer, Steven Pilkington, says in his report that officers have worked with the applicant in a "positive and proactive manner" to find solutions; but "the fundamental matters of the noise impact were unable to be addressed satisfactorily despite significant effort."

His report also highlights concerns from English Heritage on the visual impact on the Castle, a Grade I listed building, and Highway Authority worries over traffic congestion.

A formal national press launch in Mr Ruffer's London offices is planned for next Wednesday; but officials said this week that it would not go ahead if permission was refused.

The Eleven Arches chief executive, Anne-Isabelle Daulon, said that they were "highly sympathetic" to the residents' amenity, and were committed to reducing noise to acceptable levels.

"We hope that the planning committee will be persuaded that the significant long-term social and economic benefits of this once-in-a-lifetime development, and our commitment to achieving acceptable noise levels during the shows, will justify approval of the application."

The chairman of the Bishop Auckland Civic Society, Dr Robert McManners, described the recommendation for refusal as "devastating news". The town's county councillor, Sam Zair, said: "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bishop Auckland. I hope that some of the major issues can be ironed out."

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