Council to stay in forum for town

The former Morpeth library site, which the county council has now announced will be used for a new leisure centre.

The former Morpeth library site, which the county council has now announced will be used for a new leisure centre.

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The town council will remain in the Morpeth Forum following a vote, despite criticism of the administration at County Hall.

But councillors have requested that one of the Labour cabinet members at Northumberland County Council attends future meetings so there is a direct channel of communication about the future of key sites.

The forum was established last year as a way for the two local authorities to work together so the county council is fully aware of the factors to take into consideration for the disposal of its assets in Morpeth, such as the Riverside site that includes the former Morpeth Library, and future investment in the town.

The three county councillors for Morpeth, the county council’s Town Champion Nigel Walsh and officers in the strategic estates department are among the members.

The town council members of the forum have previously spoken of their frustration that decision-making county councillors, including leader Grant Davey, had declined to attend meetings when asked.

And they have been unhappy at not being told in advance of announcements – such as plans for housing and commercial development at the current County Hall, former fire station and Merley Croft sites.

Its planning and transport committee last month agreed to recommend to last week’s full council meeting that the town council approves to withdraw from the forum ‘in light of the lack of timely information being provided’.

But Coun Joan Tebbutt, chairman of this committee, said at the meeting: “We were feeling deeply negative about the county council leadership at the time of the planning meeting and I reluctantly agreed to support the recommendation, with its actions over its plans for the County Hall site still fresh in the mind.

“However, after thinking about the matter deeply since then, I believe dialogue is still the best way forward and I propose an amendment that we stay in the forum, but request that a Labour county council cabinet member – ideally the one with responsibility for planning – speaks with us on a regular basis.”

The forum organised two public events for residents to give their views about what services they wish to see delivered in the town and what they would like to see provided in Morpeth.

Coun Nic Best, who still wanted the town council to withdraw from the forum, said no action has been taken by the county council as far as he was aware based on the information it received from the public events.

He added: “We have not received a county council plan for the disposal of its assets, or even a full list of its assets, despite repeated requests and we’ve had to resort to a Freedom of Information request.

“Our suggestions are being ignored and it’s a one-way channel at the moment. We have been taken for a ride.”

Coun Bob Robertson was among those who wanted the authority to stay in the forum.

He said: “Shouting at the county council when the door is open is better than shouting through a closed door.”

For the original recommendation to leave the forum, two councillors voted in favour of it, 10 were against and there was one abstention.

For Coun Tebbutt’s amendment, 11 were in favour, one was against and there was one abstention.

Coun Johnny Wearmouth, who also voted to leave the forum, said afterwards: “If and when Labour are kicked out of power, the forum should be reignited. Until then, it is clearly not working and only serves to help legitimise the damaging decisions being made at County Hall.”