County Hall move ‘not a done deal’

The relocation of Northumberland County Council’s headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington is not set in stone, according to its leader.

But opposition parties are concerned that they will not have an equal involvement in the final decision after Labour members did not approve a request to set up an all-party working group to look into the matter.

Earlier this month, the Labour-led 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, council leader Grant Davey said the current timetable is for these plans to be available for councillors to discuss in February.

Liberal Democrat and Conservative members have insisted that substantial evidence is needed before the move can take place and councillors from both parties lodged a ‘call-in’ asking for the policy board’s decision to go before full council.

Further concerns were raised at the committee meeting this morning.

Lib Dem scrutiny member Andrew Tebbutt said: “An all-party working group should be set up to look at all the issues in detail and matters such as relocating to Ashington and the funding for such a move need to be put forward as separate motions to the full council.

“If they are included as part of the budget setting, there will be virtually no realistic opportunity to have a debate.

“Creating this group would ensure openness and transparency rather than the suspicion that this is all smoke and mirrors and ‘to hell with the costs, we’re going to Ashington’.”

Coun Davey said the various issues can be discussed by the existing working groups made up of members of all the council’s political parties.

He added: “We still need the plan to come forward before any firm decision is made. Speaking hypothetically, it could end up costing £100million to move and if that is the case, it won’t go ahead.

“There will be plenty of time to discuss all the issues. Bringing forward a ‘call-in’ is simply political points scoring.”

The vote on setting up an all-party working group was five for and five against. The chair of the committee, Labour member Alyson Wallace, had the casting vote and she was against, so the recommendation was refused.