The political war of words over the relocation of County Hall from Morpeth to Ashington has continued.
More than £32million of capital funding for the project – its costs over a 35-year period are slated to be £38.5million – was approved as part of Northumberland County Council’s budget and medium-term financial plan at a meeting last week.
Conservative group leader Peter Jackson, who described the proposed new County Hall as ‘the largest vanity project of our lifetime’ and a ‘palace for councillors’, moved an amendment to remove the capital funding for it from the budget.
He said that it had not been proven that anything is significantly wrong with the current headquarters and other options – the likes of Bedlington and Cramlington, if not Morpeth – were not investigated.
Coun David Bawn said that residents in the county are angry about the decision, so ‘as a politician, I thank you, but as a taxpayer, I’m furious’.
The amendment failed, however, as Labour and independent councillors voted against it, while the Lib Dems were split.
Group leader Jeff Reid was against the move because he believes it is only private money that will help regenerate the town, not public money, but Coun Heather Cairns and Coun Gavin Jones said they were supportive due to the jobs and investment coming to Alnwick and Berwick respectively.
Council and Labour leader Grant Davey said: “The move to Ashington is a good move, getting money out of this building is a good move, it’s a good move for staff – add it all up and it’s a brilliant move.”
The administration has previously stated that the re-location would cost less in the long-term than having to refurbish the current building up to modern standards, describing the project as an ‘invest to save’ scheme.
After the meeting, Labour branded Tory opposition to the move ‘hypocritical’ given the Conservative group’s support for the move of the former Castle Morpeth Borough Council headquarters from the Kylins to Longhirst Hall in 2004.
A spokesman for the then authority at the time told the Herald that it had been prompted by the dilapidated state of The Kylins complex, which faced ‘crippling maintenance costs’.
Coun Dave Ledger, deputy leader of the council and Labour group, said: “Coun Jackson and his party have seemingly forgotten their role in the move to remove services from Morpeth in 2004, yet they want to bind the current administration into offices designed for bigger council budgets and less flexible ways of delivering services.
“It’s hypocritical and it’s a cynical ploy to play party politics with our plan to boost market town economies and to save money.”
In response, Coun Jackson said: “If the council administration had any clue what the situation in Morpeth was, it would know that the old Kylins building was a Victorian townhouse well over 100 years old, dilapidated and facing crippling maintenance costs.
“Contrast that with the County Hall building which they have been determined to demolish. It is modern, built to the highest standards and it is purpose designed to be an open plan office building, much like the new one in Ashington.
“The local Conservatives have been asking people what they think and the vast majority oppose this lavish expenditure at a time that the council is cutting essential front-line services.
“If Labour is so sure of its arguments, then why is it refusing to ask local people and to put this to a county wide referendum alongside the EU referendum on June 23?”
At Tuesday’s meeting of the authority’s strategic planning committee, members agreed to go on a site visit ahead of making a decision on the planning application for the scheme.
The bid is for a five-storey, grade-A office building, associated infrastructure and the provision of up to 474 parking spaces at a site on Lintonville Road.
Also at the full council meeting last week, council tax will rise by 1.99 per cent – the maximum allowed without holding a referendum – and the authority will also add an additional two per cent for use on adult social care, a special precept offered by the Government.