Plans to refurbish the outside of County Hall in Morpeth have been approved, as Ashington residents await action on the site of the aborted new council HQ.
An application to carry out a variety of works at the Loansdean building – which was uncontroversial from a planning point of view – was unanimously approved by the Castle Morpeth Local Area Council on Monday night.
However, the principle of spending money to stay in Morpeth, as opposed to moving to a new headquarters in Ashington, is a more thorny issue – and was a key battleground in the run-up to the council elections last May.
The previous Labour administration decided to move the authority’s base to a new building at Portland Park and work had started on site, but upon seizing power, the Conservatives immediately cancelled the planned move.
In January, Labour was critical of the Tories after £17million was earmarked for the refurbishment of County Hall, although councillors learned in February that the cost of the external works, primarily involving replacing the roof and window refurbishment, had come down from £3.86million to £2.7million.
Around £10million has been spent on plot development and road, drainage and utility infrastructure works at Portland Park, while the authority says it has agreed a settlement of £1.4million with the contractor for the cancelled HQ.
A consultation on the future of the town-centre site took place last autumn and suggestions included a new cinema, restaurants and retail, but more than 1,000 residents have now signed a petition calling for urgent action on what they have dubbed ‘the Ashington hole’.
Addressing those concerns this week, council leader Peter Jackson said: “What we’ve been doing is consulting with the people of Ashington and asking them what they wanted in their new town centre.
“The number-one idea that came from local people was the idea they would have a cinema in the middle of Ashington which would create a centre for an evening economy, a very vibrant evening economy.
“We have undertaken the studies to show that it’s a very viable thing to do and we are talking to cinema operators at the moment to see if they’ll invest in Ashington and we think that they will, so that’s really exciting.
“On the other side of the road, we have a fantastic space for what will be a retail park in the future. For that site, we have had interest from several major national chains so we think we will have a very exciting offer for the people of Ashington.”
By Ben O’Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service