Jobs, education and housing on list of priorities

COUNCILLORS have laid down their priority areas for the future direction of Northumberland.

Employment, rural broadband, new housing, communication with parishes and education services were all mentioned as key issues for the coming years at a State of the Area discussion between members of the county council’s north area committee on Monday.

The provision of affordable housing was brought up a number of times during the meeting at Morpeth Town Hall. The unitary authority has a 2011/12 target to provide an extra 143 homes of this type.

Lynemouth councillor Milburn Douglas said it was important to increase this housing in areas of high deprivation and in his ward there are quite a few empty properties that could be used.

Another to call for more affordable housing was Ulgham member David Towns, but he urged planning officers and committees to be cautious about new developments in Morpeth.

“When the Morpeth Northern Bypass is completed, it will open up great swathes of land for housing and business properties,” he said.

“I’m certainly not against new housing, however we need to be careful about how much pressure we put on services in the town when we consider applications and bear in mind that there are plans for homes in other parts of Morpeth such as at Northgate Hospital and in Loansdean.

“For example, the high school may be slightly under subscribed but the first and middle schools are pretty full and it will be difficult for them if hundreds of families move to the area in new developments.”

Those in attendance were also asked to put forward their views and Ulgham Parish Council’s Vice Chair Helen Shaw criticised the authority for a lack of communication with residents about highways works.

She added: “Residents are annoyed at not being told when things are happening and I know other parishes have had similar issues.

“I was told by one worker that it’s not standard practice to inform parishes, so can you make it standard practice.”

The need to reduce unemployment was discussed and county council Leader Jeff Reid said the authority is doing all it can to support private sector businesses.

On Alcan’s Lynemouth aluminium plant, which is facing closure, he said: “We’re hoping for the best, but we’re planning for the worst. This includes pressing for an enterprise zone which covers the Alcan plant.”

Providing rural broadband was another issue raised.

The county council is considering whether it will match the £7million funding pre-allocated by government body Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) in its medium-term financial proposals.

It has also been urged by Coun Steven Bridgett, who represents the Rothbury and Coquetdale ward, to apply for money under Defra’s Rural Community Broadband Fund.

Education was discussed and Amble member Robert Arckless spoke of his concerns about the potential for many schools across the county to become new-style academies.

“I accept that I was part of the previous county council administration which delivered two academies,” he said.

“But the new system, which I think is the Government bringing back grant-maintained schools and calling them academies, could have a very profound effect on the way we deliver education services.

“If a significant number of schools become new-style academies, it will make it much harder for us to support the schools which remain in local authority control.”

During a presentation about the county council’s services and financial situation, Deputy Leader Coun Roger Styring said that despite the major cuts in the previous two years, nearly £51million in savings is required over the next three years.

Although it is expected to come in under budget this financial year, one of the areas which will need to be reigned in for 2012/13 is local services, as it has a projected overspend of £5.4million for 2011/12.

Executive Member for Corporate Resources Andrew Tebbutt said the reasons for this section being over its budget include the number of requests for pre-planning application advice being much fewer than thought and the good news that thousands more young people than expected took up the 16 to 19 years travel pass for students studying a full-time course.

“The local services budget will be brought into line so this situation does not happen next year, but this will affect what we can deliver,” he added.