Update: Costs spiral for planned County Hall relocation

Costs have spiralled by £14million for the relocation of County Hall.

Northumberland County Council is planning to move its headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington in a switch that was originally said to cost £19million.

I think that at least 95 per cent of the residents right across Northumberland believe that this is a total waste of taxpayers’ money,

Peter Jackson, Northumberland Conservatives Group Leader

Now a new business case states that £27million should be set aside for the build cost alone to allow for inflation.

And a further £5.05million should be provided for internal fit-out, with £1.08million extra for parking provision.

Part of the increased costs come from plans to add an extra floor to the proposed offices to accommodate some 300 staff currently working from seven bases elsewhere in Ashington.

A bigger building would also see predicted operational and maintenance costs rise to £26.6million over 25 years, an increase of almost £4million on the original estimate.

The council says the move would create £1.8million of spending in Ashington, while Morpeth could benefit from the development of education and leisure facilities on the County Hall site.

However, the report states that selling the land for housing is still viable.

Critics of the proposals say the latest figures add more weight to the case for staying put.

Morpeth county councillor Andrew Tebbutt said: “I continue to think that the rationale for moving to Ashington is flawed. There have been some significant changes, which make the business case even more doubtful than before.

“The current County Hall has spare capacity so the extra cost involved in putting an additional floor on the new building suggests the financial balance has changed towards refurbishing the existing building. It was marginal in the original calculations.

“The report also fails to confirm the so-called financial benefits for Morpeth.”

Coun Tebbutt also questioned the projected extra spending in Ashington as members were previously told that most of the council staff do not shop in Morpeth and live in Wansbeck, suggesting they already shop there.

He said the report minimises the potential impact on Morpeth’s economy depending on how the Loansdean site is re-developed, saying housing is the least preferred option, but any alternative use would reduce the capital receipt for the land, while building schools and leisure facilities would bring significant extra cost.

The Morpeth Kirkhill member added that existing offices in Ashington, which would be closed, are visited by vulnerable people, who could feel intimidated if they had to visit the large headquarters for services.

“Finally, and sadly, the report fails to make any indication of any progress on attracting private investment into Ashington, which was the original bases of the proposal to move,” he said.

“I remain totally opposed to the whole idea of moving the council’s headquarters to Ashington.”

Northumberland Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson was equally scathing.

“I think that at least 95 per cent of the residents right across Northumberland believe that this is a total waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

“For a start there was no proper options appraisal report as to the best place to site a new County Hall, but worse than that is that there is no evidence that there is a need to spend this money in the first place. The existing building is perfectly adequate for what is going to be a smaller county council in the future.

“The trumped up benefits that are supposed to accrue for Morpeth and Ashington have been shown to be pie in the sky.

“Now we are coming nearer to a decision the whole project is ballooning in both size and expense. We said originally that many of the costs of moving were not included in the figures. That is becoming apparent now.”

He added: “This is just an indication of the lack of planning that has gone into this project. It shows both to us as councillors and to the general public that we can’t have any faith in what we are being told by the Labour and Independent councillors who run the council.”

However, Council Leader Grant Davey said the move would open up exciting opportunities.

“A new headquarters in Ashington, the re-development of council land and facilities in Morpeth, and the wider property programme that we are proposing are key pillars of the council’s new economic strategy,” he said.

“These proposals form a key component of our vision for Northumberland, which will become a reality if council agrees to the proposals.

“Both projects form part of an integrated suite of investment being led or supported by the council and which will transform our town centres, attract new jobs and accelerate the development of new infrastructure and quality housing.”

The report will go to the council’s economic scrutiny committee on Wednesday, the cabinet of June 9 and full council on July 1 when a decision will be made about the proposed move.