County Hall sale benefit claims come under fire

A report heralding £100million in benefits from selling off County Hall has been branded ‘the most optimistic, cloud cuckoo, rose-coloured spectacles piece of work anybody has ever done’.

The blistering criticism has been levied by councillor Andrew Tebbutt after the publication of a study by two consultancy firms into moving Northumberland County Council’s headquarters, and more than 1,000 jobs, from Morpeth to Ashington.

Consultants ERS say the move will provide £56million in benefits to Morpeth from selling the Loansdean site for housing, while the gain to Ashington would be £52.8million from jobs, investment and increased retail spending by council workers.

The Morpeth ‘benefit’ comes largely from construction jobs and the consultants say that while the town will lose £1.2million in retail expenditure form staff at County Hall, the spend from the new households would amount to £5.2million.

They accept that over the longer term there will be a fall in the number of Morpeth residents employed by the authority arising from staff turnover, but there will be more jobs taken by Wansbeck residents in an area that needs an economic boost.

Meanwhile, GVA consultants found that a full relocation to Ashington would be the cheapest option.

They assessed four options — staying in the present building and moving staff there from other Loansdean offices, relocating to Ashington and selling the whole of the Loansdean site for housing, reducing the size of County Hall by demolishing one block and selling off the areas of the site no longer used, or building a new HQ at the former Morpeth Fire Station and selling the rest of the land.

They estimate that staying put would cost the council £46.4million over 25 years for refurbishment, operational and maintenance costs, while continuing to use just part of the site would cost £36million.

Moving to a new HQ at Loansdean was put at £34.5million, with building costs of £19million, while relocating to Ashington would cost £32million, with build costs of £18.7million and £550,000 on land acquisition.

However, the consultants warn the figures should be used for general purposes only.

They take account of estimated income from land sales from all or part of the County Hall site. After meeting council planners the consultants say the plot is suitable for residential development and assume it would get planning permission. Up to 250 homes are envisaged.

But Coun Tebbutt said: “The report has fundamental flaws.

“The ‘significant economic benefit to Morpeth’ is just ludicrous. I don’t think these figures stack up. It is the most optimistic, cloud cuckoo, rose-coloured spectacles piece of work anybody has ever done.

“I don’t know how they can assume that housing would be granted for the site. The council has already agreed to 500 houses for Fairmoor and Northgate, the Linden Homes application for St George’s, which is a preferred site, has gone in, we have the Loansdean permission and the Stobhill one is outstanding. We only need 1,500 houses in the next 16 years so why should more be allowed on a new site?

“It also must put at risk the Morpeth Northern Bypass because part of the justification for that was to open up St George’s for housing.

“The whole thing fundamentally changes the situation in Morpeth.

“The report comes to the scrutiny meeting next week. By then I will have analysed it in detail and will be challenging the findings.”

Morpeth North member David Bawn was also sceptical.

““I have grave concerns regarding the actual financial impact on Morpeth. I fail to see how removing the town’s largest employer can possibly have a positive impact of £56million on Morpeth,” he said.

“Despite the Labour Administration’s wishful thinking, Morpeth remains the logical location for the central administration of the county council. It has the best transport links and the town is geographically a sensible central point to access from all the outlying areas of the county.”

Northumberland Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson also said the report was ‘flawed’.

“This report is as deeply flawed as the first one,” he said.

“It is trying desperately to show that there is some justification for building a new Labour Party headquarters in Ashington that it is going to call County Hall.

“The idea of spending £40million of taxpayers’ money to move County Hall to a location that is not particularly suitable for access to most of Northumberland is just ridiculous. I think some residents are disbelieving that this is going to happen, but the Labour Party at the county council seem to be absolutely set on this course of action.”

He added: “As far as I can see from the report, the only benefit to Morpeth is through the building of approximately 250 houses. Morpeth is due to get about 2,500 houses in the next few years so it will be getting that economic benefit anyway. If they want benefits for Ashington then build some more houses there.”

However, Northumberland County Council Lead Executive Director Steven Mason said the report presented a strong case for relocation.

He said: “The difference in running costs in keeping County Hall in Morpeth compared to a number of other locations is marginal, but when the overall economic impact of the relocation is taken into account the case is very strong.

“The council will require a different approach to office working and office space over the next four years. We anticipate that officers will work more flexibly from different locations around the county, bringing our services and staff closer to communities.

“There will be opportunities to develop office space with ‘touch down’ and shared space across the county. Fewer workstations will be needed at the corporate headquarters.

“Importantly, money saved on property can reduce the impact on services of the challenging council budget reductions that have to be made in the coming years.”

The report will go before the council’s Economic Prosperity and Strategic Services Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday, ahead of a Policy Board meeting next month.