War of words over County Hall move continues

Northumberland County Council's current headquarters in Morpeth.
Northumberland County Council's current headquarters in Morpeth.
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The Northumberland Conservative group has responded to claims of a split in the party’s position on County Hall by saying it would scrap the move to Ashington if it is in power after the election next May.

Northumberland County Council’s Labour administration has faced criticism from opposition groups over its project to relocate the authority’s headquarters to smaller new premises in Ashington.

It says this will save the council money in the long term, as it would be more expensive to refurbish or downsize the current premises, and it enables more staff to be deployed across the county’s main towns.

The Conservative group says it believes it will be more expensive to move as the overall cost is likely to be ‘much higher than the original £32million figure’.

Last week, Labour said Tory leader Coun Peter Jackson was backing plans to move staff from County Hall to 10 separate locations across the county and Morpeth North Conservative Coun David Bawn’s statement on social media that the party would stop the move to Ashington was contrary to his leader’s position.

Later in the week, Coun Jackson said: “It is time for us to draw a line in the sand and make it clear that we will stand up for the hard-pressed taxpayers of Northumberland and put a stop to this politically driven vanity project.

“We are putting potential investors and the council on notice of our firm and declared intention – if they wish to take the risk of trying to bulldoze through this project before the election, we will unwind it.”

Coun Bawn added: “Not spending millions on an expensive new building in Ashington frees up funds for de-centralisation.

“We’re all in agreement on our position and the people of Northumberland will now face a clear choice in May 2017 on this issue.”

A Labour group spokesman said the authority embarked on a Peer Review by the Tory-led Local Government Association and a big audit by Ernst & Young, the Conservative Government’s chosen auditor for Northumberland.

Both the review and the auditors ‘gave the thumbs up to the devolution plans and expressed the opinion that they were value for money for the council tax payers of Northumberland’.

County council and Labour group leader Grant Davey added: “Coun Jackson has fully u-turned on his party’s national policies, his party’s investigation into Northumberland Labour’s management of the local fragile economy and the outcomes and findings of his party’s peers, as well as his recent press statements where he fully supports the devolution of services to every market town except Ashington.

“He now wholeheartedly supports the retention of County Hall and centralisation of all services in Morpeth.”