Calls to stop County Hall move

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Councillors have called for a halt to plans to move County Hall to Ashington.

Northumberland County Council’s Labour Administration is keen to move the authority’s headquarters from Morpeth, with consultants saying it will bring £100million in benefits.

But the figures were called into question at a scrutiny committee today, and members voted by four votes to three to recommend that the proposal is deferred.

They said the consultants’ reports were “flawed”, and there was concern about spending more than £30million on relocation at a time when the future of local government is uncertain amid talks about regional devolution following the Scottish referendum.

Coun Dougie Watkin said: “Members of this council are going to have the biggest fight of their lives in the next couple of years to ensure that Northumberland stays at the centre of the North of England.

“There is going to be a major re-organisation of local government and if we are going to keep Northumberland at the forefront, we need to concentrate.

“This move is an unnecessary step at the present time. We have far more urgent things to deal with.”

As reported last week, consultants ERS and GVA were asked to examine four options — refurbishing the present headquarters, reducing the size of the building and selling surplus land, building a new smaller base at Morpeth, or moving to Ashington.

They found that the Ashington move would offer the most benefits, citing a positive economic impact from construction jobs and retail spend of £52.8million to the town and a £56million benefit to Morpeth from building houses at the County Hall site.

However, Morpeth resident David Holden pointed out that the figures related to the regional economy, benefiting the North East as a whole rather than individual towns, and the retail spend would be diverted from other Northumberland areas, with no overall gain.

Coun Andrew Tebbutt, who proposed deferment of any decision until further studies can be done and a cross-party, cross-county working group can examine them, said the reports fail to properly analyse the refurbishment option or the strategic importance of the headquarters’ location.

He said the amount of car parking land required had been underestimated, and he questioned the impact of a move on Ashington.

“I am not against the development of Ashington town centre,” he said.

“I was very much involved in the previous Administration in finding the money to fund the new leisure centre, but that was part of an overall plan to see the private sector brought into Ashington.

“It is not appropriate for the public sector to fund all of the regeneration. That will fail because you need the private sector and the retail investment as well.”

He added that building more houses in the south of Morpeth would jeopardise plans for development in the north of the town, which would put the bid for a South East Northumberland Strategic Link Road at risk.

He said: “What we do as members, what the council’s Policy Board does, is crucial. Please stop, defer, take time, re-think, listen, show that we are capable of being sensible politicians, not just politically biased.”

However, Bothal member Lynne Grimshaw said: “I totally disagree.

“I think the relocation to Ashington is a win-win situation for everybody. This is non-political.”

The deferment will be recommended to the council’s Policy Board, which is expected to debate the issue on October 7.