Anger after County Hall move full council debate is taken off the table

An artist's impression of the exterior of the proposed new Northumberland County Council headquarters in Ashington.
An artist's impression of the exterior of the proposed new Northumberland County Council headquarters in Ashington.

The Northumberland County Council administration has been accused of ‘running away from a debate’ on plans to move County Hall from Morpeth to Ashington.

And there is also a dispute between political parties over the cost of the project after it was revealed at a cabinet meeting this afternoon that the 25-year total for the new building before sales of land surplus to requirement and revenue savings is £63.7million.

The Labour group, which has the majority of councillors on the authority, set out its intentions in 2014 and plans were drawn up earlier this year to relocate the headquarters to a vacant site within the north east quarter of Ashington.

A vote was set to take place at a full council meeting on December 2 following a debate, but instead the decision over whether to allocate the £34.4million capital cost for the building – this includes the fit-out works and car park facility – will be taken in February as part of the budget deliberations.

Conservative group leader Peter Jackson said: “I’m shocked that the Labour administration is running away from a proper debate about such an important decision.

“It is driving through a vanity project that no resident was calling for and it will cost taxpayers in the county for many years to come.”

An officer report referred to a review carried out last year that examined various options, including works to bring the existing County Hall up to standard and a new build on the former fire station site at Loansdean.

Figures have been updated and it says the relocation proposal is the cheapest option over the next 25 years, even if the refurbished County Hall in Morpeth was reduced in size.

The main reason for this is an estimated £13million saving by moving staff from seven premises occupied by the council in Ashington to the new headquarters and disposing of the properties or terminating the lease.

Coun Allan Hepple, a Labour member, said at the meeting: “The figures show that staying where we are would cost more money and the ‘no change’ option of refurbishing the existing building would be £16million more expensive.

“Therefore, it can’t be right to spend more public expenditure on building costs in these times of austerity.”

Coun Jackson queried some of the figures and questioned how they had been presented by the Labour group.

He said: “The £34.4million figure for the budget is actually £41.5million when you take interest into account. Adding the £22.2million revenue costs brings you to the £63.7million total.

“The capital receipts and revenue savings are based on estimates and in some cases, the figures are extremely optimistic.

“The original plans were to include 1,000 workers, but now it has gone up to 1,300 to include the workers from the other Ashington sites.

“There is space for 1,300 staff at the current County Hall, so the Ashington savings can still be made and the workers can be relocated to the Morpeth site.

“In addition, the improvement works for the existing building are said to be £12.38million. But we have seen the costs for each heading and we would class them as for a re-build rather than a refurbishment to bring County Hall up to modern standard.

“And we are very sceptical about these costs because a proper structural survey of the building has not been carried out.”

Coun Ian Swithenbank, a Labour member, said it would take a lot of money to sort out County Hall because the heating and ventilation are “pathetic and always causing problems” and the building is not suitable for the modern computer systems that the council requires.

The Liberal Democrat group is also opposed to the plans and group leader Jeff Reid criticised the administration for withdrawing the December 2 debate.

He added: “The council has already invested in public buildings in Ashington, such as the new leisure centre, and adding another public facility will exclude opportunities for private sector businesses in the town.

“This project would slow down the development of Ashington, not speed it up.”

He and Coun Jackson raised concerns about traffic congestion. Although the authority’s hot-desking arrangements will provide greater flexibility, they believe the 528 spaces proposed will mean dozens of people will have to look for alternative spaces elsewhere.

Council leader Grant Davey said 850 of the council’s staff live within walking distance of the new building.

Coun Jackson responded by saying that a number of these employees are people who fix roads, cut grass and deal with street lights, so they would not be working at the new headquarters.

The recommendation was passed by a majority vote.

Just before this took place, Coun Davey said: “This project is about the regeneration of Ashington and the market towns in Northumberland, as hundreds of council jobs will be moving back to them under our new working arrangements.

“And it will also enable us to move forward with consultation with the people of Morpeth about the proposal for a fantastic new education campus and a new leisure centre, which will offer the same facilities that are in the current building in Newmarket.”

If the project is approved in February, it would be part of the Portland Park development and construction could start as early as August 2016, with staff moving in by September 2018.