Five companies have been shortlisted to transform the 1,000-acre Derwent Forest in West Cumbria, although the identity of them remains confidential.
Cumbria County Council said that the companies were chosen from 12 which originally submitted an expression of interest in developing Derwent Forest and "were selected on the grounds of their financial robustness and capability to deliver their outline proposals".
The five companies are now being told to draw up detailed proposals on how they would regenerate Derwent Forest and Broughton Moor, the former Royal Naval Armaments Depot acquired by Cumbria County Council and Allerdale Council from the Ministry of Defence for £1 in August 2008.
The shortlisting was carried out by Cumbria County Council, Allerdale Council, the North West Development Agency and DTZ, the marketing and property consultants which have been working on the project.
Although the identity of the shortlisted companies is confidential information, Cumbria County Council added that it can be confirmed a number of the outline proposals are exploring the possibility of whether coal extraction from the site will be a component of their final development plans.
The council said the eventual end uses of the site being proposed include a range of leisure, tourism, business and housing opportunities. Some concerns have been raised locally that the site may be considered as the location of a deep geological repository for radioactive waste, but the council added that this is not being proposed by any of the shortlisted companies.
Cllr Tony Markley, Cumbria County Council's cabinet member responsible for economic development, said: "I'm delighted that the process remains on track to appoint a development partner for Derwent Forest by the end of this year. For over 50 years this site has been closed off to the public and for the last 18 years it has just sat there unused. This is a unique opportunity to secure a long-term, sustainable use for Derwent Forest which will deliver real benefits to the local community. We've kept the strongest and most feasible options on the table – nothing has been decided at this stage, so it will be down to the developers to make the case that their proposal is the best one for local people. It will then be a decision for the two councils, subject to the usual rigorous planning regulations, whether that proposal goes ahead."
Cllr Tim Heslop, leader of Allerdale Council, added: "We have carefully considered all the submissions and the five shortlisted companies offered tremendous potential for community benefits. We have an opportunity to deliver much more for our communities than just a development on the Derwent Forest site, but we need to find out from residents what kind of community benefits they would want to see included in the proposals. Communities will be consulted with in the near future to discuss what these might be. We have a short timescale in which to make the most of any development proposals and we need to move on this; if we don't, we run the risk of the land being sold on and us having less of a say in the type of development at Derwent Forest and with no additional benefits for the communities living nearby and in the wider Allerdale area."
The North West Development Agency has committed £1.4m to pay for maintenance, security costs and marketing of the site for development. Funding is available until March 2012.
Profits from the sale will be split 50:50 between the MoD and the councils, with the NWDA entitled to recover its contribution.
During the coming months, each of the five developers shortlisted will be invited to discuss their ideas with local authority officers, and Cumbria County Council said they will also be expected to demonstrate the benefits of their proposals to local communities when they submit detailed proposals by September 2010.
In preparation for this, Cumbria County Council said there will be two public meetings in early June, one in Seaton and one in Broughton, where workshops will "give residents an opportunity to say what kind of community benefits they would want to see included in the proposals".
Provisional dates of Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 June have been set for the meetings, and more details on venues and times will follow.