County Hall move ‘not a done deal’ as opposition mounts

County Hall demonstrators against the move to Ashington
County Hall demonstrators against the move to Ashington

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 councillors have insisted that substantial evidence is needed before the move can happen, including a detailed structural survey of the County Hall building, and members of both parties lodged a ‘call-in’ asking for the policy board’s decision to go before full council.

Councillor for Morpeth Kirkhill Andrew Tebbutt discussed the call-in with Mr Mason after the lead executive director told him it was ‘premature’. The Lib Dem, who is a member of the scrutiny committee, has also spoken with Coun Davey about the matter.

He said at the meeting: “If the assurances given by the lead executive director and the leader are genuine, then the administration will support the establishment of an all-party working group to give careful and detailed consideration to the business case as an integral part of pre-scrutiny.

“The administration will allow the full council to vote on both the policy to relocate and the allocation of funding on specific motions and not just submerged into the general budget provision.

“It will allow a full examination of the options set out in the GVA (independent consultant) report so that the economic benefits and dis-benefits can be properly analysed and it will carry out a full and genuine Equality Impact Assessment on the proposed move.

“None of those actions would be contrary to the clearly expressed preference of the administration to want to relocate to Ashington, but it would ensure openness and transparency – rather than the suspicion that this is all ‘smoke and mirrors’ and ‘to hell with the cost and the adverse effects on parts of Northumberland – we are going to Ashington’.”

Fellow committee member Glen Sanderson (Conservatives) asked Coun Davey: “If you believe the road you are travelling on is the right one, why fear setting up a working party with equal political membership and giving all councillors the opportunity to vote on the proposed relocation?”

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.

For example, the capital working group can look at the costs and the staffing working group can examine the implications for staff.

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.

“If we go ahead with this, the relocation won’t happen until 2018 so this is not just a little premature, you are years premature.”

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.

The Conservatives launched a protest against the move before the meeting.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the party’s Parliamentary candidate for the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency, said afterwards: “This is far too big a decision for the Labour administration to take without a full examination of the facts.

“As an accountant, I am far from convinced that the consultant reports have even begun to justify this huge expenditure and use of taxpayers’ money.”

Coun Tebbutt said he accepted that the two working groups mentioned by Coun Davey could look at the two specific matters, but he can’t see how the other issues will be properly debated by councillors.