Council chiefs urged to be open about sell-off plans

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COUNCIL chiefs have denied accusations that they have been keeping other councillors in the dark about their proposals to sell off services.

Northumberland County Council is looking at various ways to cut costs, including using a new £20m sports centre planned for Ashington as bait for a mass sell-off of its leisure facilities, as reported in the News Post Leader last month.

County Hall bosses have been accused of shrouding their privatisation plans in secrecy, but council leader Jeff Reid hit back at those claims at last week’s full council meeting, insisting the process had been as open as it could be.

“We have spent the last four years trying to be open and transparent in all our actions,” said Lib Dem group leader Coun Reid, pictured, of Plessey in Blyth.

“We have £101m savings to make, and it is going to be very difficult. We have to explore all routes and deliver all the services that residents have paid for.

“We have not decided if this is the right or wrong thing to do, but we need to look at how to deliver the excellent services that we are delivering for less money.

“You will all decide if that option is right for Northumberland.

“We have to explore every option that is open to us because we are running out of time.”

However, Conservative group leader Peter Jackson fears the privatisation process could lead to job losses and also a reduction in the quality of service residents receive.

He called for a debate on the matter so all councillors can have their say, rather than a decision being made by the authority’s executive.

“Given the crucial importance of any decision surrounding future delivery of services by the council, any change to our current way of working must be fully debated and agreed upon by full council,” said Coun Jackson, of Ponteland South.

“Public-private partnership will have fundamental and long-term consequences for our council. It is more far-reaching than anything this council has considered before.

“We are worried about the lack of transparency. We worry that councillors will be reduced to signing a contract, and we want to be involved in delivering services that are provided across the county.

“We need to see all the options, then we can make our minds up.”

The authority is seeking a commercial partner to take on services as it faces pressure to save £70m within the next three to four years, on top of the £100m and 1,500 jobs it has slashed already.

Labour group leader Coun Grant Davey, of Kitty Brewster in Blyth, said: “The council is seeking strategic partners to transfer and outsource services, as yet unspecified, as a single savings option.

“Elected members of all groups and parties have not been meaningfully engaged in this process.

“This issue goes beyond party politics and calls for all elected members to express their views on proposals which will alter Northumberland for ever.

“We need to calm down and take a little bit of time out and look at this.”

The council’s executive member for corporate resources, Andrew Tebbutt, of Morpeth Kirkhill, added: “We are facing some very very difficult times. It would be tough even before we knew we had to save a considerable amount of money.

“The whole scene of local government is changing beyond all recognition.

“I am not going to sign up to something that is merely outsourcing our services.

“If we want to preserve services and lose as few jobs as we have to lose then we need to keep the process moving.”

A report on the privatisation plans will be presented to the council on Wednesday, July 25.