Call-in of county HQ relocation decision rejected

An artist's impression of what the new Northumberland County Hall may look like.
An artist's impression of what the new Northumberland County Hall may look like.

A call-in of the decision to relocate the county council’s HQ was rejected this morning, while the chief executive said there had been a lot of misleading information over this issue.

The call-in, which asked the cabinet to look again at its decision to build a new headquarters in Ashington to replace County Hall in Morpeth, made without a full council debate, was discussed at this morning’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s economic growth and corporate services scrutiny committee.

The existing County Hall in Morpeth.

The existing County Hall in Morpeth.

Conservative councillor David Bawn introduced the call-in, saying: “It’s important to this council that the scrutiny process has integrity, is seen to have integrity and is independent of the administration.”

He explained that it had been made on the grounds of proportionality, due and appropriate consultation and the taking of professional advice from officers, respect for human rights, a presumption in favour of openness and clarity of aims and desired outcomes.

“This council has a duty to be open and to invite debate,” he said. “We don’t want to bring this council into disrepute.

“There’s no clarity; it’s too late to question the decision, but it’s too early to know what’s going to happen on this site and what’s going to happen in the market towns.”

Committee member, Coun Andrew Tebbutt, a Lib Dem, also raised a number of issues that he had with the decision, on which a full council debate was initially promised.

“Suddenly it was decided that a decision had been made months previously and that’s appalling,” he said. “This committee made a decision based on false pretences.

“At the full council meeting on the budget in February, we were assured that by voting for the budget, we were not presuming this decision on the move to Ashington, that council would get a separate vote on that.

“I think the financial analysis is flawed. It started off by assuming there would be enormous benefits for Ashington and enormous benefits for Morpeth, but they have slowly seeped out.”

The council’s chief executive Steve Mason said that he did not believe the call-in was justified and responded to a number of the issues raised.

“Obviously we used external advice and input when constructing the report and we would say that we, as officers, have given professional and appropriate advice,” he said.

“I would describe the decision as broadly financially neutral. The business case demonstrates that the council is able to borrow the money to have a more modern headquarters and the savings will pay for the cost of the capital.”

He referred to the publicity and stories in the press on this issue and said there had been a lot of misleading information, often in relation to the difference between capital and revenue expenditure.

“The £63million figure is particularly misleading, because it ignores the capital value associated with this site and ignores the revenue savings associated with the amalgamation of buildings in Ashington.”

He later added that the publicity around the move meant that it would be difficult to argue that there was no openness and transparency and pointed out that it will be debated as part of the budget in February next year.

Coun Glen Sanderson, a Tory member of the committee, said: “There’s a great degree of uncertainty and confusion as to why this decision is being made.

“I ask the leader and the chief executive to be bold and to allow a debate as we originally said we would last year.”

The committee voted by six to two to reject the call-in after it was clarified with the legal officer that the members had to decide if the original decision by cabinet had been made in the right way, not reopen the debate on the reasons behind that decision.