COUNTY Hall could be sacrificed to save assets elsewhere in Northumberland.
The claim was made by Northumberland County Council Leader Grant Davey as he was questioned about proposals to sell off the authority’s Morpeth headquarters for housing development.
The Herald reported last month that the council’s leading Labour group was considering the move as a cost-cutting exercise, which would see staff working from smaller bases across the county.
It had been suggested that up to 2,000 houses could be built on the County Hall site.
At a meeting of the full council on Tuesday, Morpeth member Andrew Tebbutt asked what evidence there is that the move would save money when no business plan is in place.
Coun Davey said: “Facilities at County Hall are unsuitable. The building is inefficient, expensive to run and requires major investment. New offices are sustainable and cheaper to operate, mainly as they are more energy efficient.
“It is considered the council will need substantially less office space in future. The team is looking at the options, which will enable future decisions to be made.”
He added: “We are looking at the main towns and reducing running costs, as well as surplus buildings. It’s important these efficiencies are realised to protect frontline services. All places are subject to any business case.
“The reason for this sale is to save other assets.”
Coun Davey said that by using existing council buildings in towns, it could reduce the travel-to-work time for staff and increase productivity as a result. He said an options appraisal will be carried out.
After the meeting, Coun Tebbutt said: “This is a badly thought-out policy. It seems to me that the Labour group hasn’t done its sums. I don’t think it is viable.
“There are major issues in relation to the impact on Morpeth, and the numbers just don’t stack up.
“The administration says it is going to do a proper study. I suspect that it will tell the group that much as it wants to do this, it can’t.”
Fellow Morpeth councillor David Bawn had submitted questions about whether the site could support 2,000 houses, the impact on the Local Plan, whether consultation would re-open on planning policies and what the estimated net value would be of the sale.
However, as he was unable to attend the meeting members were told he would receive a written response.
Coun Bawn said: “The date of the meeting was changed so I couldn’t attend, but these are important questions and we need answers.”
Meanwhile, opposition to the sell-off is growing.
At the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade, member Ken Stait said: “This is going to be a big issue for every generation of this town. It is really worrying.
“The county council in its Core Strategy talks about Morpeth having a balanced economy and balanced employment and yet we are facing the impact of losing 1,000 jobs from this town. The effect on the town centre cannot be underestimated.
“We are in the process of setting a Neighbourhood Plan that talks about sustainable development happening north of the river and then the county council comes along and drops a bombshell that is wants to put 2,000 houses south of the river. It is just incredulous.
“Hundreds of people have been involved in formulating our own vision for how the town should be developed and in one flick of a finger the council has thrown all that up in the air.
“We are stakeholders in this town and it is important that our concerns are registered.”
Fellow member John Beynon said: “This could be one of the most important decisions that affects Morpeth for many years.”
The Morpeth Flood Action Group is also concerned.
Chairman Alan Bell said: “It would be a concern if there was to be housing at County Hall because it would increase flows into the local watercourse and burns.
“We aren’t impressed by solutions such as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and their ability to cope with increased flows.
“It would be very worrying if the county council started approving huge housing developments in Morpeth.”
Morpeth Town Council has set up a petition calling on the county authority to publish all evidence that the closure of County Hall would be in the best interests of residents, undertake a full business case assessment, include the facility as a potential development site in the Core Strategy and Neighbourhood Plan, meet with the town council urgently to discuss the economic impact and to have urgent discussions with the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan steering group.
To date more than 350 people have signed the petition.
Town councillor David Parker said: “It is a question of getting it out there so the people of Morpeth are aware of it. Between now and the end of March I would like to think we could get 1,000, if not 2,000 signatures.”
It can be accessed through a web link at www.morpeth-tc.gov.uk