Kepier Power Station – April Asset of the Month

In 1944 a coal-fired power station was proposed alongside the River Wear at Kepier. The North-Eastern Electric Supply Company (NESCo) spent some years planning for the power station and bought up the land where they wished to site it before publicly announcing their plans in 1944. These plans caused a huge public outcry and therefore the government agreed to put the issue to a public inquiry. As a result the proposal for this power station was abandoned. This is the ‘asset’ for April. (See List of Assets of the Month.)

The requirements for the site were (1) access to water, (2) stable ground (i.e. not affected by mine workings), (3) good rail and road access. The site NESCo chose was the old rifle range either side of the River Wear at Kepier: 3/4 of a mile from the Market Place and 1 mile from the Cathedral. The power station would have included a turbine and power house 140 feet high, 2 chimneys 350 feet high to carry away the smoke and dust, and 3 concrete cooling towers 260 feet high. As well as the power station itself major additional works would have been required, e.g. additional railway cuttings into the hillside above Kepier (the coal would have been delivered from across the County to the goods railway station at Gilesgate – now a Travelodge) and a conveyor belt of 6 huge arches leading from the hillside to the power station on the ground below. NESCo planned to sell on the clinker and ash produced, and place the dust and soot (mixed with soil) onto a tip (14 foot high) on the west side of the river. It should be noted that the main body of the Cathedral is 80 feet high, and the tower is 218 feet high. The contemporary drawing and diagram below (Pocock, 2006, cover and p.16) show what the power station would have looked like. The photos show the proposed location nowadays: a rural landscape of fields and the Northern Powergrid training area for power line workers, next to the listed Kepier Hospital.

View of the site nowadays looking west
Kepier Hospital

NESCo stated that the power station would become a tourist attraction to rival the Cathedral: it should be noted that the architect was Giles Gilbert Scott who designed Battersea Power Station. Despite the advice of their Planning Consultant, the City Council welcomed the scheme because of the employment it would bring to the City and surrounding areas, as long as the plant blended harmoniously with the surrounding countryside and waste products were adequately controlled. Durham was suffering from the effects of the war and the urgent need to rebuild the economy, and before the war Durham had suffered from severe unemployment. Groups such as the Trade Unions, the County Council, and the Farmers Union and some local people supported the proposal. However other local people and organisations were in opposition, e.g. the Cathedral, the University, the urban planner Thomas Wilfred Sharp, and the Trust (at that time the City of Durham Preservation Society which had only been set up in 1942).

The arguments for and against this proposed development resonate with the debates about current day developments in the City: economic and social factors versus cultural and community factors, and the challenge, or even the possibility, of achieving a compromise or balance between them. Quotes from a Durham University Journal 1944 article demonstrate this:

“In short the Power Company and the supporters of the project maintain that a power station at Kepier is both necessary and desirable, that it will bring prosperity to the City, and that its social and economic benefits will be such that no other considerations should be allowed to stand in its way” p.9

The opponents argued that the power station technicians would be recruited from outside the area, and electricity for local people would be no more accessible or cheaper than if the plant was placed elsewhere in the County where there were other, more suitable locations. “The true function of the city, the opponents maintain, is as a cultural, educational, administrative and tourist centre. This function will be seriously disturbed, if not ultimately destroyed, by heavy industrialisation …” p.9

The author of the article in the Durham University Journal focussed on the detrimental effect the power station would have on views from, to and of the Cathedral and the City.

See also some contemporary letters from ‘The Evening Chronicle’, 18th July 1944, and comment in the Times, 13th July 1944:

An editorial in the Times, July 14th 1944, explores the idea of “the power of planning to reconcile utility with amenity”

The objectors appealed to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to hold a public inquiry and this request was accepted. The public inquiry was held in December 1944. The Trust was the main objector at the inquiry and Thomas Sharp argued its case: “that it was unnecessary to choose this particular site, which would be environmentally disastrous, both in terms of visual and aerial pollution”. [Pocock, 2013, p.137). Following the inquiry a long process of legal, political and financial manoeuvrings delayed the decision until finally in June 1945 the scheme was abandoned. NESCo increased their production at their existing plants and therefore there was no need to build a new power station.

See contemporary parliamentary discussions covered in Hansard:

Fighting this proposal stretched the resources of the new City of Durham Preservation Society to the limit as this heartfelt plea for donations (published in the Times, 29thAug 1945,) shows:

The trustees. of the Durham Preservation Society, which opposed the erection of an electric power station at Kepier, have issued a statement saying: — “When we undertook to state the arguments against the Kepier Power Station we did so because we feared the case might otherwise go by default. The decision reached would seem to justify our action and to prove—as we hoped it would—that the Ministry of Town and Country Planning is a real guardian of the national interest. To present the case adequately has proved expensive: in spite of the help we have received, it will more than absorb all our small invested capital, and seriously cripple us in the work we hoped to do for the city. We do not complain, for it is the national tradition that public rights should be asserted by private citizens, and we most certainly do not regret the expenditure: but if there are any who feel that in trying to safeguard Durham we have rendered a national service, our treasurer (at the Chapter Offices, Durham) will most gratefully acknowledge any contribution they may be kind enough to send.”

Sources of information

Kepier power station [a very full account]

T.S. (1944) Some notes on the power station at Kepier, Durham. Durham University Journal, Dec 1944, 37(1): 8-11. Digitised copy available from Durham University Library

Pocock, Douglas (2006) The futures of Durham. A reflective essay. City of Durham Trust. Available for purchase

Pocock, Douglas (2013) The story of Durham. The History Press Ltd

Durham County Record Office. Ref: Q/D/P 593. North Eastern Electric Supply Company Ltd, Kepier Power Station, site plans and elevations by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, 24 November 1944. Original number 596. Including: /1 plan(s)

Relevant items can be seen on display in the Durham Museum

Note: The content of scanned newspaper clippings has been converted into text for ease of reading.

1 comment

  1. Message What a strange coincidence. This afternoon I had just finished reading Thomas Sharp’s ‘Cathedral city, a plan for Durham’ and thought I’d check out the proposed power station at Kepier. A narrow escape by all accounts.

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