A multi-million pound scheme for the 'regeneration' of a recession-hit district in Stockton-on-Tees hangs in the balance because legal action from objectors threatens its chances of obtaining government funding.
Even if the opposers of the plan to redevelop 5.9 hectares of land in the north west of the city into a pedestrianised shopping mall lose their legal battle, the delay to the launch of the project while its fate is decided by the courts could itself prove fatal.
For the millions of pounds needed for the proposal are only available until March 1998, and if the scheme fails to get under way before the deadline, the cash will be withdrawn by the government.
He said: 'This is a flagship project for the regeneration of Stockton-on-Tees involving many millions of pounds of government finance.
'But the finances are only available within a limited period because of treasury budget constraints.
'The deadline is March 1998 with a low probability of an extension to March 1999, but if the project has not begun implementation before the expiry of the end date the finance will not be available.'
Mr Steel admitted other problems could arise, for a new government will have the power to withdraw funding altogether, but he said the delay was the greatest obstacle confronting the scheme at the moment.
He added: 'There is so much at stake here we say it is urgent this case is given expedition by the court.'
After hearing Mr Steel the judge, Mr Justice Dyson, agreed the case should be heard in the high court before it closes for the summer holidays in August.
But, although the borough council has won its battle for a speedy hearing, the objections may yet prove a final stumbling block to the project.
The legal action, the court heard, stems from compulsory purchase orders by the borough council of land and buildings on the site of the planned redevelopment, which were approved by the department of environment in February this year after a four-month public inquiry.
A listed Baptist chapel and a Kwik Save supermarket, both based in Wellington Street, are among the properties threatened by the compulsory purchase orders and their owners are now challenging the DoE decision.
Both Chesterfield Properties PLC - the owner of the Baptist tabernacle - and the Kwik Save Group argue the DoE inspector who conducted the inquiry gave too much weight to the council's arguments for the scheme and not enough weight to their objections.
They claim the council has failed to show the project would be financially viable and Kwik Save argues the plan will deprive the area of its only discount supermarket.
They are urging the high court to overturn the DoE's approval of the compulsory purchase orders, which would force the DoE to consider the plan again, resulting in even more delay.
No precise date for the case has yet been set, but Friday's ruling means it will take priority in court lists and must be heard in June or July this year.