A COUNCIL accused of planning to offset an “ecological disaster” at a site where it plans to build 450 homes by improving the environment on the other side of town has pledged to work with environmental campaigners to overcome concerns.

Darlington Borough Council’s health and housing portfolio holder Councillor Kevin Nicholson said the authority’s plans to team up with a housing developer to build 450 homes off Neasham Road was still “in its infancy” and he wanted campaigners to help shape the proposals before the public consultation stage.

Cllr Nicholson was speaking after ecological studies of the proposed site commissioned by the authority found species affected would include lapwings, linnets, skylarks, tawny owls, hawks, kestrels, five species of bats, plus toads and newts.

The studies concluded the development would result in a “permanent net loss” of habitat and national policy stipulated developments must deliver “biodiversity net gain” elsewhere, where losses cannot be avoided or reduced at development sites.

Documents submitted with the application state to offset the biodiversity damage, the council had identified 6.7 hectares of fields used for cattle grazing off Staindrop Road, close to the A1(M) and a 2.1-hectare site off the A66 in the Hell Kettles Site of Special Scientific Interest Impact Risk Zone.

The report states land identified for use for biodiversity net gain purposes must be maintained for at least 30 years and that sites located close to the proposed development site must be prioritised above more distant ones.

It proposes the biodiversity net gain at Staindrop Road and Hell Kettles sites could include an increased area of native wet woodland, woodland belts to increase habitat connectivity and an expanded area of open water habitat with associated aquatic planting, more native grassland species and hedgerow planting.

Campaigners said a proposal to relocate the livestock market to the same site had been rejected by the council on environmental grounds, but “an estate of hundreds of houses would be so much worse”.

One objector to the development, Shona Thomas, said it was scandalous that the council could “wreck the ecology of Darlington’s eastern suburbs and mitigate it by enhancing the already lush environs of the west end”.

Cllr Nicholson said he wanted to see wildlife enhanced in and around the Neasham Road site, which is close to Geneva Wood Local Nature Reserve and Brankin Moor, and he was committed to getting people’s views to influence the proposals ahead of a consultation.

He said the development, which is set to include 294 affordable homes, would help some of the 1,600 people on the authority’s waiting list for council houses.

Cllr Nicholson said: “I’m more than happy with people becoming involved with the plans before the consultation stage. Increasingly, the environment is a key priority for everybody.”