HQ-move audit fails to appease plan’s opponents

An artist's impression of the proposed council headquarters in Ashington.
An artist's impression of the proposed council headquarters in Ashington.

An audit report has found that the value-for-money case for the new council HQ is sound, but concerns have been raised at the lack of a business case.

The report, by Ernst & Young which will be discussed at Northumberland County Council’s audit committee next Wednesday, concerns the proposed move of the authority’s base from Morpeth to a new building in Ashington.

The capital funding for the project was signed off as part of the budget-setting process last month and the failure of the audit to raise any significant issues means there are likely to be no further hurdles, unless the planning process exposes any difficulties.

Council and Labour leader Grant Davey welcomed the report, saying: “I’m pleased that the auditors have confirmed the decisions behind the proposed move were carried out correctly and the scheme will also provide value for money for local people.

“It’s also good to have independent scrutiny when it finds we actually underestimated the potential benefit of the move to the wider region.”

However, opponents are unlikely to go quietly; the Tories in particular have long been vocal critics of the plans for what they describe as ‘a £40million white elephant’.

And Northumberland Conservatives have said they found aspects of the report ‘simply extraordinary’.

The summary of recommendations mentions reconciliation of staff numbers in the cabinet report to supporting documentation and the lack of an overarching business case.

Coun Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives, said: “Although I have been justified in asking for this report on behalf of the many concerned residents, it has been limited in its scope.

“It is simply incredible that a full and comprehensive business case has not been presented to councillors.

“Given all of the outstanding issues, it is difficult to claim that members were presented with sufficiently robust data to take an informed decision.

“All in all, the vast majority of residents will not believe that this £40million scheme is anything other than a waste of the council’s resources at a time when the council’s priority should be to maintain and improve essential local services.”

But Coun Davey added: “It would appear that Coun Jackson is clutching at straws to justify his numerous inaccurate claims and to hide the fact his concerns have not been upheld by an independent audit.

“The review did make a number of recommendations which we will now take forward, but I hope we can now draw a line under this issue and move forward together for the benefit of everyone in Northumberland.”