Council budget approved

The Conservative's white elephant campaign at County Hall, Morpeth, yesterday. Picture by Peter McCartney
The Conservative's white elephant campaign at County Hall, Morpeth, yesterday. Picture by Peter McCartney

A two-year budget, including plans to relocate County Hall, has been approved by Northumberland County Council.

The budget includes a 1.99 per cent hike in Council Tax, as well as £44million in cuts.

But there will be £350million of capital investment, with substantial funds for economic growth and regeneration projects, such as the Morpeth Northern Bypass.

Council Leader Grant Davey said: “This is a budget born out of tough financial conditions, but is focused firmly on our future.”

Included in the financial plan is the relocation of the county council’s headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington.

Prior to the meeting, Northumberland Conservatives gathered outside County Hall with a ‘white elephant’, calling for the move to be scrapped.

They say it will cost taxpayers more than £40million, but Coun Davey said the build figure is £19million.

And he dismissed concerns about the cost, putting them down to a “small minority of Opposition councillors”.

He said: “This proposed move of the civic building will generate significant economic benefits for the whole of Northumberland. We would not be making this investment if it didn’t make sound economic sense.

“Unfortunately, a small minority of opposition councillors seem intent on spreading misinformation about this figure, when in fact they should be asking their own Government about the spending settlement they have given us.”

The council leader said freezing Council Tax would have led to problems in the future.

“As the Government focuses its public sector expenditure reduction upon councils, local government is facing unprecedented financial pressure to tackle these huge cuts,” he said.

“However, our aim is always to be fair to the residents of Northumberland, particularly those who are most vulnerable, and there have been no changes to our support scheme, which provides up to 100 per cent funding to households most in need.

“This is done while maintaining essential services and making improvements wherever possible, and this rise works out at less than the cost of a chocolate bar each week.”

He added: “Perhaps if we were in one of the more affluent areas in the country, which have benefited from increased business rates income and higher levels of economic growth, we could consider a Council Tax freeze. As it stands we would just be storing up problems for the future.”

The council plans to drive efficiencies by finding improved ways of working and working with partners to manage demand for services, while stimulating economic growth and generating income.

The £30million Morpeth Northern Bypass is expected to get final approval this week, with construction set to start in the spring and taking around 18 months to complete.

Based on long-term central growth figures over the next 60 years, the project is forecast to bring £47million worth of economic benefit for the county — £7million for the former Castle Morpeth area, £23million for Wansbeck ,and £17million for Blyth Valley.

The council says that creation of the bypass also has the potential to trigger the creation of more than 5,300 jobs in south east Northumberland, and between 1,700 and 3,000 jobs in Morpeth.

Council Leader Grant Davey said: “This is one example where a single project can have a huge number of positive spin-offs which will benefit the wider county.”

There were also plans for building work to start at the Duchess Community High School in Alnwick, Prudhoe Community High School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School next month.

The new schools are being funded through the Government’s Priority School Building Programme, with the council bridging any shortfall.

Coun Davey said: “This investment in new schools shows our commitment to education and providing the best possible opportunities for our young people who are the cornerstone of this county’s future.”

Councillors agreed a raft of other investment measures, from providing more affordable homes across the county to re-introducing the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway service in the coming years.

Coun Davey said: “We’re planning ambitious investment in the future of this county across a range of areas. This is part of our long term economic plan, which will boost employment, economic opportunities and support frontline services across Northumberland, regardless of geography.

He added: “This council has worked extremely hard to develop ambitious plans for investment, housing and jobs and I’m hopeful this budget can now be taken forward positively by all parties.”

A report setting out the plan for 2015/17 was endorsed by the Policy Board earlier this month and has now been approved at the Full Council meeting.

• Further reports and reaction will follow.