‘Whitewash’ claim over HQ-move audit

An artist's impression of what the new Northumberland County Council headquarters in Ashington could look like.
An artist's impression of what the new Northumberland County Council headquarters in Ashington could look like.

A Morpeth councillor has criticised the administration at County Hall over an audit into the headquarters move to Ashington.

The capital funding for the project was signed off as part of the budget-setting process last month and the report by Ernst & Young (EY) found that the value-for-money case for the new building is sound.

It said arrangements were in place to ensure the county council ‘took properly informed decisions and deployed resources to achieve planned and sustainable outcomes for taxpayers and local people’.

However, it identified a lack of an overarching business case in its summary of recommendations.

Morpeth Kirkhill ward member Andrew Tebbutt, who has raised concerns about the relocation from the start of the process, has a number of issues with the report.

He told the Herald: “Why didn’t EY consider the alternative report submitted by me, and presented to cabinet in April 2014, or the financial report submitted by David Holden, an international business analyst, to the same meeting when we were told that EY had been supplied with all the relevant information?

“EY is saying in one part of its report that the decision to move was made then. The failure to supply both my report and David Holden’s suggests the administration had something to hide; that our data had relevance and would have seriously undermined their preferred plan.

“No detailed structural investigation into the presumed faults of the current building has taken place, but EY has just taken the provided data as gospel.

“Crucially, there is no detailed examination and analysis of what actually ‘new ways of working’ mean in terms of a restructured or new building.

“Most new ways of working refer to modern technology – why can’t County Hall be properly equipped with up-to-date technology exactly the same as is to be provided in Ashington?

“Frankly, the report is a whitewash.”

The report was discussed at a meeting of the council’s audit committee last week. Conservative group leader Peter Jackson said he was prevented from making comments at the meeting and afterwards, he sent an open letter to chief executive Steven Mason.

The questions that remain in his opinion include the following: ‘Is the figure used for ‘No Change’ (staying at the current County Hall site in Loansdean) actually a rebuild rather than a simple refurbishment of the existing building?

‘What are the real relocation costs, including all HR considerations?’

A county council spokeswoman said the No Change figure would be the cost to reconfigure and refurbish the interior of the building and not for a rebuild.

Leader of the authority, Grant Davey, added: “I’m pleased that the auditors have confirmed the decisions behind the proposed move were carried out correctly and the scheme will also provide value for money for local people.

“While we didn’t have any concerns about the efficiency or appropriateness of the decision taken by cabinet, the independent review has confirmed this.

“It would appear that Coun Jackson is clutching at straws to justify his numerous inaccurate claims.”