PARISH councillors are worried that buying a former bank could leave residents out of pocket.
Seaton Valley Parish Council is facing being lumbered with a £350,000 debt – likely to total £537,500 with interest – for a building it feels compelled to take on so it can keep on top of its increasing workload.
Due to an increase in the number of services handed to it by Northumberland County Council, the parish council believes it can no longer carry on as it is and needs to find a permanent home.
The base it has in mind is the former HSBC bank in Seaton Delaval, but it will cost the council £170,000, resulting in an increase in the precept it levies from residents of the parish.
Chairman Bob Watson said: “The county council has given us and other parish councils a list of services it will no longer provide from April. We, as parish councils, have no choice.
“Our residents, in a recent survery, stated they did not want to lose these services, which include playgrounds, war memorials, bus shelters and youth facilities.
“We can choose to provide these services from our precept or else the county council will charge for them as special expenses.
“If we take on these services, we cannot run as we are, with one clerk for the council working from home.
“For two and a half years we have been searching for the cheapest premises we can get. We are proposing to buy the old HSBC bank and utilise the downstairs shop for a number of services and rent out the two flats overhead.
“We have had complaints that people believe the precept will rise between £50 and £60, when the truth is that we are considering between £1.41 and £2.12 per annum, for band A to D.
“The simple truth of the matter is if we take on services, we need additional staff, and if we take on extra staff, we certainly need premises.”
The council agreed to continue providing 11 allotment sites, seasonal lighting in five villages, supporting village events, offering grants to community groups and putting out newsletters.
It also agreed to take on extra services such as looking after war memorials, bus shelters, flowerbeds and playgrounds and to run youth leisure activities, an adult education programme and an Olympic torch event.
On top of that, a small fund will be made available to help subsidise events held to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee in June.
Councillors raised concerns about saddling the parish with a sizeable debt but agreed to take out a mortgage from the Treasury’s Public Works Loan Board of £350,000 over 25 years to fund the purchase of the Astley Road building. It will now seek quotes for refurbishment works.
Coun Bobby Nixon said: “The council has the legal right to purchase the building, but does it have the moral right? I don’t know.
“The parish is going to be saddled with this debt for 25 years.
“On top of that, we have a situation that we don’t have any guarantee that the flats will be rented.”
Coun Watson added: “We are not going to be saddled with these services without a building.”
Coun Bernard Pidcock said: “We have been through hell and high water over this issue. We need more staff and we need a premises where we can run these services from, and it needs to be a place where people will use it.
“We did everything we could to try not to saddle the parish with this debt, but this is the cheapest option and it pains us that we have to do this.
“We are thinking positively about the future, and we should have the belief that we are going to deliver these services cheaper and better.”
Vice-chairman Susan Dungworth added: “There is no way we can continue to operate from the clerk’s house. It is madness. He has been looking high and low, and there isn’t anywhere else.”
“We have been left with nowhere to go except the premises that we are looking at.
“This is not a decision that has been made based on our own opinions and has not been come to lightly. This decision has been agony to reach.”