New working group to look at hall ‘Plan B’

Morpeth Town Council Planning And Transport Committee Chairman Joan Tebbutt and Vice-Chairman Bob Robertson outside County Hall.
Morpeth Town Council Planning And Transport Committee Chairman Joan Tebbutt and Vice-Chairman Bob Robertson outside County Hall.

Town-wide talks have been called to get the best deal for Morpeth from the proposed sale of County Hall.

Morpeth Town Council will set up a working group of various organisations to identify the best use for the Loansdean site should the Labour-led Northumberland County Council administration’s relocation plans be adopted.

The town’s Planning and Transport Committee says that while members remain wholly opposed to the move to Ashington and will continue lobbying for the county headquarters to stay in Morpeth, they must prepare a plan B.

Consultants’ reports have so far only considered selling the site for housing, but the town council is fiercely opposed to that and will look to present other viable options.

Planning Chairman Joan Tebbutt said: “The working group will incorporate people across the town. We will involve a whole variety of people because this will ensure we look at the issue fully.

“I will write to Northumberland County Council Leader Grant Davey to tell him we are doing this and want the county council to come up with something that is acceptable to the town and the county council so we can have a win-win, rather than a lose-lose situation.”

It is envisaged that the group will include town councillors, county-council officers, the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade and the Greater Morpeth Development Trust, with possible input from Sanderson Arcade developer Mark Dransfield, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery and Arch development company.

Coun David Parker said: “At least this working group will establish some bottom lines on both sides, which is good, but I would issue a word of warning.

“At the moment, my perception of the county council leadership is that it is very determined and at no point has it backed off in relation to the housing issue on the county council site. It has said it might be used for other purposes, but that is as far as it goes.

“We are opposed to the position the county council seems to be taking. While this working group has a lot of merit, I wouldn’t want people to think we are backing off opposing the county council’s position.

“This could well be a good plan B, but our plan A is that we are opposing what the county council is proposing.”

He added: “I have had many conversations with the people of this town over the last six months about this matter and I found everybody I chatted to was opposed to it. I haven’t found anybody who actually supports it. We mustn’t go back on our opposition in any shape or form.”

Coun David Clark added: “Ashington is going to gain from this move so obviously Morpeth is going to lose

“ If we say we want to work a compromise out then we are beaten from the start.

“The decision hasn’t been made at this point. From that point of view we should utterly oppose it.”

However, Coun Andrew Tebbutt said the town council must prepare for the County Hall sell-off going ahead.

“This group is not implying in any way that we are not totally opposed to what the county administration is doing. I’m very clear that I think it is wrong, but we also have to be pragmatic,” he said.

And Coun Adrian Slassor said: “I agree with the opposition, but we have got to work towards what happens if we are not successful. It is not a matter of giving in.

“There is no point waiting until the door is shut.

“The door is ajar at the moment so let’s use that in the best possible way.”

Coun Bob Robertson agreed.

“There is no point in just going in with blank opposition because the county council has a clear determination to go in a particular direction,” he said. “Our role is to get the best situation for the town and we do that by working with the county in a firm and positive way.”

Members agreed unanimously to set up the working group, which will report back monthly to the planning committee. A full report on its findings is expected by April, which would then be submitted to county-council leaders and senior officers.

In October, the county council’s policy board agreed to instruct lead executive director Steven Mason to develop a proposal for a smaller base in Ashington town centre based on the reduced requirement for office space, with a view to relocating by early 2018.

And at a meeting of the authority’s economic prosperity and strategic services overview and scrutiny committee last week, Coun Davey said the current timetable is for these plans to be available for councillors to discuss in February.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors have insisted that substantial evidence is needed before the move can happen, including a detailed structural survey of the County Hall building, and they believe that the final decision should be voted on by the full council.

Coun David Bawn, county councillor for Morpeth North, said: “I find it mystifying that the administration can admit that it has yet to complete any of the work necessary to see whether moving County Hall to Ashington is viable, yet it has already resolved that this is its ‘preferred option’.”