County Hall sell-off ‘could ruin town’

SHOCK plans to axe County Hall have been branded ‘disastrous’ for Morpeth.

Northumberland County Council’s Labour Administration is considering closing the authority’s Loansdean headquarters as a cost-cutting drive.

The move would spell the loss of the town’s biggest employer and it has been suggested that the site could be developed for up to 2,000 houses.

Local councillors are outraged, saying the plans would change the nature of Morpeth and that two years of work on future planning policies, which envisage housing development in the north of the town, would be thrown into turmoil.

Coun David Parker, who raised concerns at the North Area Committee on Monday, said: “The town council was somewhat gob-smacked by the whole thing. The potential impact on Morpeth is quite significant.

“It destablises the county council’s own Core Strategy and the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan in that the sort of housing site it could make could virtually create an alternative town centre. This has never been suggested in the Core Strategy. It is not a site that anybody ever envisaged being built on.

“If the county council leadership envisages not just another 1,000 or more houses to the north of the town, but also 2,000 to the south it would alter the whole character of Morpeth.”

The Labour group says it has to consider all options as it has to slash £130million from budgets over the next four years due to Government funding cuts.

It says that County Hall would need more than £10million spent on it to bring it up to modern workplace standards and that moving staff to smaller town centre bases across the county would reduce the current £450,000 annual energy bill.

However, Coun Parker said: “I understand that the county council has some financial difficulties, but it should not have allowed the offices to get to the point where it feels it has to dispose of them because of the work needed to keep them in good repair. The whole thing has implications for Morpeth and virtually all of them are negative.”

Basic details of the plan were revealed to staff in a New Year’s message from Council Leader Grant Davey last week in which he said a centralised County Hall system had failed Northumberland.

Coun Davey said: “This is about saving jobs and making Northumberland a good place to live and making us a modern council. What we are trying to do is decentralise and move people back into town centres, in buildings that we own. This will assist the whole economy of Northumberland.

“Morpeth will not suffer, it will gain. The town is a boom town. People love to shop in the town and those people aren’t the people who work at County Hall.

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Developers also love sites in Morpeth and this will increase the economy even further.”

But county and town member Andrew Tebbutt said: “Coun Davey has been pursuing his own agenda for decentralising the council’s Administration since 2009.

“Not only will Morpeth be ruined as a vibrant market town if he and his colleagues are allowed to pursue this agenda, but services across Northumberland will suffer through lack of co-ordination and being under-resourced.”

Morpeth North county councillor David Bawn added: “Such a move would be disastrous for Morpeth’s local economy. It is bizarre that at the same time the county council is drawing up the Local Plan to include hundreds of extra houses in Morpeth over the next 20 years, it is considering closing Morpeth’s largest employer.”

And Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “This proposal has pretty severe implications for Morpeth on several levels.

“There is no doubt that Morpeth is the County Town and to simply say that Morpeth will no longer be important to the county council is a disgrace. It seems to me that the vision the Labour group has for Morpeth is not of a sustainable town with considerable local employment, but to turn it into a commuter town for Newcastle and Tyneside.

“There isn’t a costed, detailed, worked-out plan at all.”

Morpeth Town Council will discuss the proposal next week.

The county’s Labour group says the plan will save services and jobs.

A Labour Group spokesman said: “It’s a bit rich for the coalition of Liberal Democrats and Northumberland Conservatives to cry foul over our potential response to their Government’s savage cuts programme.

“We said the Liberal experiment, backed by the Conservatives, to centralise services was a mistake and contributed to the problems faced by the county’s town centres and we made it clear one of our top priorities and a manifesto commitment was to protect frontline services.

“We make no apology for our plan to protect jobs, not buildings.”

County council officers are examining the business case for the proposal and their findings will be presented to a future meeting the authority’s Policy Board. Consultation would then begin.