No slowing down on County Hall move and land sale

The County Hall site in Morpeth where the land is being sold for development.
The County Hall site in Morpeth where the land is being sold for development.
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A motion to delay the finalisation of contracts for the County Hall move and the sale of the site in Morpeth was voted down yesterday afternoon.

And the heated debate on the failed motion, which lost by 34 votes to 27 at the full meeting of Northumberland County Council, has been followed by the news that the sale of the old County Hall will result ‘in a far bigger windfall than even county council leaders were anticipating’.

A number of high-quality offers were received for the two parcels of land on the Morpeth site and a total capital receipt of around £20million is now looking likely, which will provide new leisure facilities and parking as part of regenerating towns across the county, according to the council’s Labour administration.

The council’s decision-making cabinet has now endorsed proposals for the redevelopment of the 36-acre Loansdean location, including retaining part of it for a new Goosehill First School, as well as backing proposals to redevelop the Gas House Lane site on Morpeth’s Riverside site with a much-needed leisure centre and library complex plus a prestige hotel.

Council leader Grant Davey said: “I’m delighted to say the political doom merchants who predicted we’d get ‘just £6million’ for this site are well and truly off the mark.

“Our own GVA report gave an estimated value of £9.8million, which has also proved to be a very conservative figure such has been the level of interest and the obvious confidence in Northumberland’s future under this administration’s plans for economic regeneration and new jobs. I’m delighted that the combined net capital receipt looks like it will be double this.

“This means that there will be even more money than anticipated to reinvest in restoring frontline services directly to residents through our market towns initiative and in providing new leisure and education facilities across the county.

“Had we stayed in County Hall and shored up the building for a few more years at a cost to taxpayers of many millions of pounds, all this extra money and these fantastic new facilities for residents would simply not be available.

“For reasons of commercial confidentiality, we cannot give any further details of individual offers for the retail and housing sections of the County Hall site at the moment while planning applications are under way, but this windfall is wonderful news for communities across the county who will reap the benefits of our market towns initiative.”

Reacting to yesterday’s failed motion, its proposer, Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, said: “Nothing I heard in the debate from the Labour group alters my view that this scheme is a total waste of taxpayers’ money. I have stated that the cost of the Ashington project could be up to £80million and this is a figure that is based on the publicly-available tender documents for the scheme at Portland Park, Ashington.

“What this administration has done is try and cherry-pick figures to mislead the public and favour their argument. They claim that the new HQ is ‘only’ £34 to £40million. This may be so, but this does not include the site clearance, the new road infrastructure, the utilities infrastructure and the additional parking that will be needed along with the potential additional new buildings in what is a major capital spending plan in Ashington.”

Coun Jackson’s assertions were previously refuted in a statement by Coun Davey earlier this week.

Coun David Bawn, ward member for Morpeth North, added: “While I am not surprised by the result, I am disappointed that an opportunity has been missed to put this wasteful plan to the public at the elections in May.

“If the Labour group has such faith in its scheme, why are they running scared of the voters and determined to force this through before the election? The public can clearly see that the writing is on the wall for this administration and they are attempting a scorched-earth policy to tie the hands of an incoming administration.

“It was disappointing that although the Liberal Democrats present supported our motion, half of the Liberal Democrat councillors didn’t even turn up for the debate. People in Morpeth will be asking, can we really rely on the Liberal Democrats on this issue?”

Morpeth Kirkhill’s Lib Dem councillor, Andrew Tebbutt, explained that he only missed the debate because of illness, which has seen him cancel all of his commitments over the past week or so. He would have supported the Conservative motion.