Northumberland County Council has signed off on almost £8million of funding for the major cinema and retail development in the centre of Ashington.
The Portland Park project, which will feature a seven-screen cinema, restaurants, cafés and shops, was described by council leader Peter Jackson as ‘a viable scheme that’s going to breathe new life into one of the main towns in Northumberland’.
Critics in the town have dubbed the site the ‘Ashington hole’ as it has sat undeveloped since the new Conservative administration decided to cancel the relocation of the county council’s HQ from Morpeth in 2017.
But at this morning’s (April 9) meeting of the authority’s cabinet, councillors approved a non-repayable grant of £3million and a loan of £4.7million (repayable with interest) to Advance Northumberland, the council-owned company which replaced Arch, to deliver this project.
A report to councillors explained that the finance is split between a loan and a grant as ‘a purely commercial scheme is not viable’, because the overall development cost is estimated to be £8.7million against a value of the completed scheme of £5.5million.
This is because the cost of developing the cinema and restaurants (plot one) plus the retail terrace, known as plot three and which will provide a link into Station Road, is estimated to be £6.1million, ‘due principally to the high cost of developing the cinema, and the cinema being at first-floor level, which adds costs and servicing complexities’.
However, the sale of plot 2 will bring in £1million and reduce the overall project cost to £7.7million; Advance Northumberland has been able to finalise terms with a ‘major retailer’ that would deliver a 20,000 sq. ft store.
“We are trying to bring a brand-new feeling to the centre of Ashington,” Coun Jackson said.
“I know it’s taken a while to get private-sector offers together, but we are pretty confident that we are making really good progress on this now.”
Coun Richard Wearmouth, the cabinet member for economic development as well as the Advance Northumberland chairman, added: “This is really good news for Ashington and I’m really pleased to see it coming to fruition.
“It will be completely transformative, there are any number of people in the private sector who want to locate their business in Ashington, which is a tremendous vote of confidence.”
Alongside the complaints about the ‘Ashington hole’, there are some who have claimed that a cinema is not what the town wants or needs.
After the meeting, Coun Brian Gallacher, the Labour representative for Ashington’s Haydon ward, said: “The reality is, do I want a cinema there? No, I don’t. It was never the first choice of residents in the town-council survey.
“If it comes, I can’t see it being a magnet for people to come.
“That being said, I welcome the investment in Ashington. All the county councillors sit down on a regular basis to try to bring business in as well as improve the town and enhance the infrastructure.”
Coun Liam Lavery, from Ashington Town Council, added: "Hopefully this development does go ahead and doesn’t get stalled in similar events to those seen in Bedlington. The news is welcome, but the people of Ashington have been taken for a ride and treated with no respect whatsoever."
Ken Dunbar, managing director of Advance Northumberland, said: “It’s immensely satisfying for everyone in Advance Northumberland who are involved in bringing this fantastic new mixed development and cinema attraction to Ashington, thereby building on the huge success of Ashington Leisure Centre and supporting the ongoing regeneration of the town.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service