The proposed County Hall move to Ashington has been approved by council leaders.
Northumberland County Council’s Policy Board decided this morning to progress a detailed plan for the relocation from the current Loansdean base, with a move expected by early 2018.
Only Northumberland Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson voted against the plan.
Council Leader Grant Davey said: “This is part of a strategy for the whole county, which supports town centres.
“The report makes the case for relocation to smaller headquarters at a smaller cost to the council. It is an opportunity to locate to a new town centre building where the economic benefits can be shared out in the local community.
“For the sake of the whole county we need to spread the benefits.”
The Board was told that the existing Morpeth base requires significant investment to make it fit for purpose, including work to the roof, lifts and electrics, and that it would not be easily converted to a modern open-plan working environment.
As previously reported, consultants GVA found that a full relocation to Ashington would be the most cost-effective option, rather than building a new base at Loansdean or using part of the existing building.
And ERS consultants claimed there would be more than £50million in benefits each to Morpeth and Ashington from house building at the County Hall site, construction work and moving council jobs to the latter.
However, it was highlighted that the figures relate to the North East region as a whole, rather than individual towns, while building housing at Loansdean would simply divert it from elsewhere so there would be no additional benefit.
Morpeth councillor Andrew Tebbutt said: “There are compelling reasons why the Lead Executive Director’s report should be withdrawn. The GVA and ERS reports have serious flaws in them and therefore their conclusions are not valid.
“The claimed financial benefits for Morpeth and Ashington are not there. At best most of the economic benefits will be shared across the North East, with Northumberland getting a reasonable share. However, Ashington and Morpeth can only directly benefit by very small margins. The losses to Morpeth could be significant.”
Coun Tebbutt said that house building at Loansdean would seriously affect the Core Strategy and Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan, with implications for education, highways and health, and jeopardise Government approval for the South East Northumberland Link Road.
He said Ashington could not rely on public sector support alone to bring about regeneration, and raised concerns about the size of the new headquarters, the amount of parking spaces proposed and changes to working conditions for staff.
He added that Morpeth was the most accessible location for the county council base, with good road and rail links.
Morpeth town councillor David Parker said the county authority would be failing in its strategic planning duty if as Morpeth’s major employer it moved out of town and didn’t market the County Hall site for economic use, while house building there would add to congestion problems at Telford Bridge.
Coun Jackson said that he was amazed that no financing costs, depreciation figures, or repayment costs had been included in the figures, but was told by Coun Davey that they would form part of a later detailed plan for the move.
He was also concerned at a £1.65million cost for off-site archive storage, which he suggested could be accommodated within the existing council HQ if the authority stays put.
Coun Davey dismissed the concerns, saying many would be addressed in the detailed plan, and that consultants had shown that a new-build would be more cost-effective than refurbishment.
He said that building a new base in Ashington would be the key to bringing in other investors to the North East quarter of the town, and that it was easily accessible from the A189 road, while plans are advancing to re-open the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne passenger rail link.
He added that the move would support flexible working for staff from offices in towns across the county or from home, reducing travel costs.
And he said there was no evidence to suggest there would be a major impact on the Core Strategy, while taking County Hall out of Morpeth would reduce congestion in the town.
He said: “This is part of an accommodation review which is countywide. It is the wish of the Administration to move people back into town centres right across the county in order to get value for the people who use our services and the staff.”
After the meeting, Coun Jackson described the move as “totally unnecessary, the biggest waste of money in the history of Northumberland County Council and part of the Labour Administration’s politically motivated bias towards Blyth and Ashington to the detriment of the rest of the county.”
He added: “I am extremely disappointed, but not surprised that the Policy Board has ignored the recommendations of the council scrutiny committee to steamroller through its pet project in the face of massive opposition across the county.”
Coun Tebbutt said Opposition councillors will now have to consider whether to ‘call-in’ the decision, consider a motion of no confidence in the Administration, or refer the matter to the Government.
“They just don’t want to listen even though the facts are staring them in the face,” he said.
“Grant Davey presented a range of rather spurious reasons why this would be good for everyone, conveniently ignoring some basics. This could easily be a disaster for Morpeth, create considerable inconvenience for many people who live in the North or West of the county who will find it more difficult to get to the new headquarters, and there are no guarantees of any benefits for the people of Ashington.
“We will go on fighting for what we believe is right.”