Row over audit for county HQ move plans

What the new Northumberland County Council headquarters may look like if the re-location to Ashington plans are approved.
What the new Northumberland County Council headquarters may look like if the re-location to Ashington plans are approved.

A fresh war of words has broken out between political groups with decision day on plans to move the county council’s headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington less than a week away.

An external audit will be carried out by Ernst and Young after Conservative group leader Peter Jackson wrote to the authority’s chief executive, Steve Mason.

But after receiving the terms of reference, he believes it is far too limited and the public is likely to view it as a whitewash.

He also claims that 99 per cent of Northumberland residents view the project as ‘unnecessary and unjustified’.

The Labour administration has hit back, saying he is attacking the integrity of external auditors that have been appointed by the Conservative Government to oversee the county council’s finances and his group should come up with its own proposal for dealing with the costs of the existing County Hall in Loansdean.

The councillors in charge say the re-location to Ashington would cost less in the long-term than having to refurbish the current building up to modern standards, but political opponents are sceptical about the costs cited for these works because a proper structural survey of the building has not been carried out.

Coun Jackson said: “From the lack of consideration of all options to the refusal to conduct a structural survey on the existing building, this whole project has been built upon a fiction and not upon a properly evidenced business case.

“Yet, as well as being denied equal access to the external auditor, it is specified in the terms of reference for the review: ‘please note that we will not audit the integrity of this business model as part of this process’.

“It is clear that the county council will not accept a close look at its figures and does not seem to care that 99 per cent of Northumberland residents view this as an unnecessary and unjustified £40million white elephant.

“Until someone can prove to me that there is something structurally wrong with the existing building, I will continue to speak up on this complete waste of public money.”

The move will be confirmed if the funding allocation for it is approved as part of the council’s vote on the 2016/17 budget on Wednesday afternoon.

If it gets the green light, construction could start in August, with staff moving into the new building by September 2018.

The administration says the project will also help it to allocate more services and staff to town centres in Northumberland’s market towns.

Council leader Grant Davey said: “In my view, Coun Jackson is now attacking the integrity of his own external auditors that were appointed by David Cameron’s Tory government to oversee the council’s finances. The auditors are accountable for the review and responsible for the scope of the review.

“He asked for the review and we’ve attempted to go the extra mile, yet he’s already saying he won’t accept the results before it’s even complete.

“Coun Jackson has an opportunity in the budget debate to set out how his councillors and his party would deal with the latest savage cuts on this council by his Government and maybe he’ll demonstrate in the budget what his plan would be for County Hall and its subsequent year on year savings?

“He also needs to stand up the integrity of his claim that 99 per cent of the population of Northumberland are against the move back to market towns.”

Meanwhile, an online petition against the move set up by Ponteland resident David Greenwell, which will be sent to the Local Government Ombudsman, now has more than 1,000 signatures.

To view and sign the petition, click here