Row rumbles on over future of cancelled council HQ site

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The ‘patience of the people of Ashington is running out’ as the political row over the future of their town centre rumbles on.

Ashington Town Council has carried out a residents’ survey, which included questions on the town centre and the future of the Portland Park site.

It received responses from almost 3,000 households (just under a quarter of the town’s total), a far greater number than the survey carried out by Arch last year on its plans for a cinema, shops and restaurants complex.

The Conservative administration at Northumberland County Council, which halted the authority’s move to new headquarters at Portland Park, claims that the results show that ‘local people back its ambitious plans’.

But this has met an angry response from councillors and campaigners in Ashington, who say this is ‘beyond absurd’ when the Tories are ignoring locals and using the survey for political gain.

The survey results show that the number one choice for the Portland Park site is more shops and a wider range of goods (77%), with only 12 per cent of respondents saying the town centre is currently a good place to visit.

Second choice was a greater choice of places to eat and drink (60%), while third place was a cinema/theatre (56%).

This was followed by public toilets (46%), bus station and enclosed facilities (40 per cent), public open space (24%), music venue (22%), office accommodation (13%) and housing (4%).

Council leader Peter Jackson said: “I am heartened that Ashington residents have got behind our plans for new retail, restaurants and a cinema in such numbers and that they share our ambitions for the town.

“These results are in line with the research conducted last year by our own development company and will provide confidence to potential investors.

“I would like to thank Ashington Town Council for carrying out this survey and look forward to working with them to explore how they can support our plans.”

Coun Richard Wearmouth, chairman of Arch – soon to be replaced by Advance Northumberland, added: “It’s clear from the survey that the existing offer is not meeting the needs of residents.

“Unnecessarily moving County Hall to Ashington at huge expense would not have addressed this fundamental issue.

“Our plan will also create new jobs and I am delighted that Ashington residents have given it such backing.”

But Ashington town and county councillor, Brian Gallacher, said: “Ashington Town Council has had to do this to get a true picture of what residents want.

“This survey is 3,000 households and in third place, a long way back, is the cinema. And not just a cinema, it was split with a theatre so it may have been lower if it was just asking about a cinema.

“There are two sides to this – Labour at Ashington Town Council are asking where failures are so we can address them and then there’s the county council being political about County Hall.

“We just seem to be getting a cinema shoved down our throats with very little dialogue about anything else.

“There’s a lot of talk, not much commitment and very little outcome. The patience of the people of Ashington is running out.”

A spokesman from the Ashington Hole campaign group added: “Under the previous plans, 900 jobs were to be moving to the centre of Ashington. This would have underpinned the high street and created new jobs and opportunities in the town centre, including the things that have come out top in the town council survey.

“It shows the Tory arrogance that despite being contacted by numerous Ashington residents and totally ignoring this campaign group, they are now seeking to use the council survey for their own political gains.”

The survey results are available on the Ashington Town Council website – http://www.ashingtontowncouncil.gov.uk/residents-survey-2018
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service