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Concerns over council-owned Arch continue to hit headlines

Northumberland County Council-owned Arch is to be replaced with a new company, Advance Northumberland.
Northumberland County Council-owned Arch is to be replaced with a new company, Advance Northumberland.

The actions of Northumberland County Council-owned Arch have hit the headlines again – and been dismissed by Labour as the latest in a series of political attacks.

Last week, The Times reported that Graham Harper was an independent consultant for the development company when he was given the keys to a £180,000 home in Blyth on a rent-to-buy basis as well as a car.

It describes him as a ‘convicted fraudster’ after he pleaded guilty in 2010 to obtaining a money transfer by deception, having forged a mortgage document to secure £60,000.

The report quotes a review, which describes the terms as ‘extremely generous and unlikely to be typical’, adding that there was ‘no evidence of a formal contract and no reference to benefits such as a house/car in the advert’.

The Tories seized power at County Hall after last May’s elections, having pledged to scrap Arch in their manifesto.

Following this, Labour councillors on the board and another Arch director wrote a letter calling on the company to ‘honour its agreement’ with Mr Harper, who had ‘a reasonable expectation to continue to carry out contracted functions on a range of projects up to 2027’.

However, in a second letter, also seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, they raise more general concerns about new council leader Peter Jackson’s actions and call for all Arch contracts to be honoured.

It goes on to express their belief that the Conservatives could not take any action – including starting a review or putting projects on hold – until the new administration took formal control of Arch at its AGM in June.

Labour claims that a number of contracts, particularly in relation to the Portland Park site in Ashington, where the new council HQ was to be built, were cancelled ahead of this meeting.

But a county council spokesman said: “Mr Harper was contracted by Arch Group and not Northumberland County Council.

“In May 2018, following the election result, several contracts were cancelled or put on hold by the former interim chief executive of Arch Group.

“These related to specific contractors or contracts involving non-core business outside of Northumberland.”

Mr Harper said he had negotiated the house and car as part of his contract to provide PR services at a cheaper rate than a previous contractor and that he is now involved in a legal dispute with Arch over the ending of his contract.

“After the election, I was suspended for six weeks and then my contract was terminated,” he added. “I was never asked a single question, I never received a single communication from Arch until October and that was an eviction notice.

“The (Times) article only mentions me, but what about all the other contracts? What the former directors had started to do was ask the company to honour its agreements.

“Why is the authority leaking part of the letter and not the aspect of the unlawful review, honouring all contracts such as Portland Park, and why are the Conservatives and independents seemingly fixated with me?

“I agree with the MPs and Coun Davey (Labour leader), we need a transparent independent investigation into these decisions and others.”

A council spokesman added: “Following the independent strategic review of Arch, the council referred matters to Northumbria Police. We are unable to comment further at this time.

“Interim governance and financial procedures have been in operation since July 2017, including robust management arrangements to ensure probity and transparency moving forward.

“A new development company is being created, called Advance Northumberland, which will have a greater focus on regeneration, place shaping and delivering for the communities of Northumberland.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service