Calls to stop County Hall move

County Hall, Morpeth
County Hall, Morpeth

Councillors have called for a halt to plans to sell off County Hall.

Northumberland County Council’s Labour Administration is keen to move the authority’s headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington, with consultants saying it will bring £100million in benefits.

But the figures were called into question at a scrutiny committee today, and members voted by four votes to three to recommend that the proposal is deferred.

They said the consultants’ reports were “flawed”, and there was concern about spending more than £30million on relocation at a time when the future of local government is uncertain amid talks about regional devolution following the Scottish referendum.

Coun Dougie Watkin said: “The members of this council are going to have the biggest fight of their lives in the next couple of years to ensure that Northumberland stays at the centre of the North of England.

“There is going to be a major re-organisation of local government and if we are going to keep Northumberland at the forefront, we need to concentrate.

“This move is an unnecessary step at the present time. We have far more urgent things to deal with.”

As reported last week, consultants ERS and GVA were asked to examine four options — refurbishing the existing headquarters and selling off surplus land, demolishing part of the building to make a smaller base while developing the remaining site, building a new headquarters on part of the Morpeth site and selling the rest, or moving to Ashington.

They found that the Ashington move would offer the most benefits, citing a positive economic impact from construction jobs and retail spend of £52.8million to the town and a £56million benefit to Morpeth from the building of new houses.

However, Morpeth resident David Holden pointed out that the figures related to the regional economy, benefiting the North East as a whole rather than individual towns, and the retail spend would be diverted from other Northumberland areas, with no overall gain.

Morpeth Kirkhill member Andrew Tebbutt, who proposed deferment of any decision until further studies can be done and a cross-party, cross-county working group can examine them, said the reports fail to properly analyse the refurbishment option or the strategic importance of the headquarters’ location.

He said the amount of car parking land required for a new centre had been underestimated, and that Ashington could not rely on the council to fund its regeneration as to succeed it would also need private sector support and retail investment.

He added that building more houses in the south of Morpeth would jeopardise plans for development in the north of the town, which would put the bid for a South East Northumberland Strategic Link Road at risk.

“There are all sorts of reasons why the proposal is, in my view, premature and should be withdrawn. The reports by GVA and ERS have serious flaws in them,” he said.

“What we do as members, what the council’s Policy Board does, is crucial. Please stop, defer, take time, re-think, listen, show that we are capable of being sensible politicians, not just politically biased.”

However, Bothal member Lynne Grimshaw said: “I totally disagree.

“I think the relocation to Ashington is a win-win situation for everybody. This is non-political.”

Morpeth Town Council representative David Parker told the committee that there was strong opposition to selling the County Hall site for housing.

He accused the county council of failing in its strategic planning role, and said a hotel and conference centre would be a better use of the site if the relocation goes ahead.

Committee member Glen Sanderson was also dismayed that the consultants’ reports had not considered other uses.

The recommendation for deferment will go to the council’s Policy Board, which is expected to discuss the issue next month.