Petition plea for County Hall

Council bosses have been told to re-think plans to sell-off County Hall for housing over fears it could ‘destroy the essential character of Morpeth’.

The plea was made by Morpeth town councillor David Parker last week as he presented a 595-name petition against the proposal.

Coun Parker told Northumberland County Council’s Petitions Committee that residents are concerned at the planned relocation of the authority’s base to Ashington, which would mean Morpeth losing its main employer and about 1,000 jobs.

“There have been suggestions in recent months by county council spokespersons that the regeneration of Ashington is vital. No one would dispute that, but not surely at the expense of Morpeth,” he said.

And he fears that two years’ work on the Morpeth Neighbourhood Plan would be “wasted” by a major new housing site coming forward south of the River Wansbeck.

“This proposal, together with recent officer recommendations and decisions of planning committees, will leave both the county council and the town council clearly unable to develop any coherent strategy development plan for the Morpeth area at all,” he said.

“What on earth is the point of finding millions of pounds for the Northern Relief Road if the opportunity to link it with future housing development is not taken?”

If the council proceeds with the closure plan, Coun Parker called for the site to be marketed for economic development, rather than housing.

“If the council continues to pursue its present intentions it will be abrogating its statutory strategic planning responsibilities and allowing the future of Morpeth to be decided by piecemeal decisions unrelated to one another,” he said.

“Failure to address these fundamental issues will destroy the essential character of Morpeth and put at risk the considerable investment made in recent years by the private sector.”

A report by council Head of Strategic Estates Paul Leo stated that County Hall requires substantial investment to make it efficient of around £41million over the next 25 years, while new offices could offer lower running costs and more flexible working, with the potential for savings of more than £13million over 25 years.

A full report on the options, including the costs of moving staff to new locations or refurbishing the existing building, along with an economic impact assessment for Morpeth, will be considered by the council’s Policy Board in October. The site will also be included in the emerging Local Development Framework.

After the meeting, Morpeth North member David Bawn, who sits on the Petitions Committee, said: “I commend the town council for setting out some pretty basic questions for the Administration to answer. However, I feel that the rather flimsy three-page response from the council to be unacceptable.

“The council has floated a very radical policy of abandoning Morpeth and moving County Hall to Ashington, but we have yet to see any sensible justification for this.”