BUILDING work to create a multi-million pound winter sports complex in Suffolk could start within the next four months, the developer behind the plans revealed last night.
Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, yesterday gave the green light to SnOasis - subject to a number of conditions.
She said she was “minded to approve” the controversial scheme, which will be built on the former old Blue Circle cement works at Great Blakenham.
The 350-acre development has split the local community - with supporters claiming it will bring huge economic and tourism benefits while opponents fear it will choke up roads with traffic and have an adverse environmental impact.
The Department of Communities and Local Government wrote to the parties on either side of the divide yesterday to indicate the Secretary of State was in favour of the project - so long as the developers could overcome a few final environmental hurdles linked to sustainability and wildlife by July 30.
Last night Godfrey Spanner, managing director of Onslow Suffolk - the company behind the plans - said he was confident the paperwork would be complete within a month.
“I couldn't be happier - my nightmare is over, now my dream can begin,” he said. “We have been working on this project for six years, with costs running into many millions.
“It is now time to move forward. I don't see any difficulties in meeting the conditions that have been outlined by the Secretary of State - we just have to sign a legal agreement that embodies these conditions and we are nearly ready to go.
“It's suggested that we do this within 12 weeks but I'll be very surprised if we can't do it inside a month. I'm pretty certain that we will have started building before September.”
Mr Spanner said work would now begin on creating areas for great crested newts and badger setts to allay some of the environmental concerns.
“We shall be dealing with the newts before we do anything else,” he said. “We've always planned a six-month ecological process.”
The privately funded project, which is expected to cost £350m, will include a main indoor 475m long ski slope with a 100 metre vertical drop, a nine hole golf course, a 350 room four star hotel, a casino, nightclub, restaurants, conference centre, 350 chalets for guests, an ice rink, bobsleigh ride and a range of other leisure facilities.
The plans also include proposals to build a railway station which would link Great Blakenham with London Liverpool Street and 421 new homes - 35% of which will be affordable housing and will also include a new school and police station, highway improvements, roadside nature reserve and cycle track.
Mr Spanner said the scheme would also lead to a £29m package of benefits including the planting of 130,000 trees, a 40-acre ecological mitigation area and improvements to the Copdock intersection of the A12 and A14.
He said the construction phase of the project is expected to create 3,500 jobs while a further 1,800 full-time equivalent posts would be provided once it is complete.
“These new employment opportunities will stimulate the local economy,” he said. “As far as possible contracts will be awarded to local companies further strengthening the projects benefit to the economy.”
It is also hoped the development will become a winter sports centre of excellence for athletes preparing for major competitions and provide educational facilities for local school children and students.
The arguments for and against SnOasis reached a peak in April 2006 when Mid Suffolk District Council's planning referral committee backed the scheme.
However because of the level of local opposition the decision was called in by the Government to give ministers the chance to overrule and in February last year planning inspector John Gray held a public inquiry into whether the development should go ahead.
In the letter to interested parties the Department for Communities and Local Government said the inspector and the Secretary of State both backed the plans - subject to conditions.
Ms Blears concluded SnOasis (application A) would have a “very positive” impact on employment and the local economy and would be well served by public transport - although it was “likely to have some adverse impact on the landscape”.
She also expressed concerns about the sustainability of the proposal but believed these were “capable of being addressed” if the applicant ensures the highest possible energy efficiency and a reduction in emissions.
The letter said: “In the circumstances, the Secretary of State has decided to issue a minded to grant planning permission for application A, which is subject to the applicant being able to provide a firm commitment to secure 100% of the development's energy supply from decentralised and renewable or low-carbon energy, unless it can be demonstrated that this is not feasible or viable.”
The other two applications - for the railway station and housing development - were also given the green light.
Onslow Suffolk now has until July 30 to meet the new conditions after which the Secretary of State will make a final decision on or before September 17 - four years after the first application was received.