RESIDENTS are gearing up for a County Hall showdown with developers who want to build £20m-worth of student digs on their doorstep.

Families living on Sheraton Park, in Neville's Cross, Durham City, hope to thwart Alumno Developments' plans to build privately-run accommodation for nearly 400 students on the former New College Durham site.

They say the scheme is far too big, effectively creating a new university campus in a residential area, and contravenes the Local Plan.

The group is also fighting to save Sheraton House, which would be demolished to make way for a new 191-bedroom block.

Neighbouring Neville House, also an Edwardian landmark, would be turned into 233 bedrooms.

The application is expected to go before a Durham County Council planning committee in early May and residents are preparing their case for councillors to refuse permission.

Richard Cookson, who is leading their campaign, said: "We are extremely worried by the plans to convert two historic buildings into such a sizeable student development.

"To allow this development would see students outnumber local families by nearly two to one. It's the equivalent of transplanting a hall of residence bang into the centre of a quiet, family neighbourhood.

"That will create a totally unbalanced community."

Mr Cookson claimed Sheraton House had been shamefully and wantonly abandoned by its owners in the interests of profit; and the City of Durham Local Plan of 2004 says neither Neville nor Sheraton House should become student accommodation and raises concerns about the effect of any development on the amenity of the estate.

Last week, Alumno highlighted a report it had commissioned which suggested Durham needed more student housing.

Managing director David Campbell said its scheme would provide the standard of accommodation needed and free up private sector housing for families, while also bringing far-reaching community benefits.

However, city landlords have questioned the study, saying there are hundreds of rooms still unlet for the next academic year.

Durham University has given qualified support to the project, saying it would enhance a poor environment and hopes to work with Alumno and residents to mitigate any loss of amenity.