Councillor gagged in County Hall scrutiny

County Hall, Morpeth.'REF 2008145303

County Hall, Morpeth.'REF 2008145303

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Plans to allocate more than £33million to move County Hall to Ashington have narrowly scraped through council scrutiny after a councillor was barred from asking questions.

Recommendations to approve the spend and relocate Northumberland County Council’s headquarters from Morpeth were backed by three votes to two at the authority’s Economic Growth and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday.

I do regret that I wasn’t able to ask some pretty important questions about the viability of the proposed move.

Coun Glen Sanderson

But while the Labour leadership was allowed ample time to set out the case for the move, Liberal Democrat Andrew Tebbutt and Conservative Glen Sanderson were warned to be brief in any comments or questions.

And despite a councillor who was not a member of the committee being permitted to speak, after Coun Sanderson had queried the budget he was told by Acting Chairman Lynne Grimshaw that no further questions or comments could be made due to the long agenda for the meeting.

After the vote he tried to raise a point of order, but was told the meeting had moved on.

Afterwards Coun Sanderson said: “It is the first time I have been shut up in fairly long service as a councillor.

“I’m not angry, but it is disappointing that I didn’t get the opportunity to fully examine the report.

“I don’t blame the Chairman because there was a very busy agenda, time was pressing and a number of members had asked quite lengthy questions, but I do regret that I wasn’t able to ask some pretty important questions about the viability of the proposed move and to understand fully the financial costings.”

Coun Tebbutt had raised concerns about the feasibility of staff ‘hot-desking’ as the new office would have about 1,000 workstations for more than 1,600 staff, the adequacy of 432 proposed parking places, and the suitability of the building for vulnerable people accessing services.

He was told that there was ample parking in Ashington, new ways of working would enable ‘hot-desking’ and there would be a separate entrance for service users.

The proposal could see new school and leisure facilities built on the existing County Hall site in Loansdean. Coun Tebbutt was told that discussions are ongoing about who would pay for the education facilities.

Council Leader Grant Davey said: “This is about the economic regeneration of one of the poorest areas in Great Britain, a ten-year plan for Ashington. This is a really good opportunity to do something in Ashington and it is a really good opportunity to do something really good on the ground here in Morpeth as well.

“There are positives all the way.”

The report will be considered by the authority’s Cabinet on Tuesday and full council on July 1.