COUNTY HALL: Move may not be easy to stop

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I refer to Richard Wearmouth’s letter (Morpeth Herald, August 18).

While councillor Ian Lindley did stand for election in May 2013 as a Liberal Democrat, he immediately defected, becoming an Independent who seems to support Labour in everything it does. Such things happen.

Tory MP Douglas Carswell resigned to join UKIP. The Tories had a Morpeth town councillor elected for Stobhill in 2013 and disowned her. The Tories on the county council had a deserter in Anne Dale. There are others throughout history.

Parties are free to expel people and people are free to leave their party. That should not reflect on the party. I think, however, that if you defect soon after being elected, the honourable thing to do is stand down and allow a by-election.

As regards the future of County Hall, we are being bombarded by bluster in the lead up to elections next May, and truth is in danger of being lost.

The records show that it was me who first flagged up to local people, as well as opposition councillors, that this move was being proposed. It was me who led on this in scrutiny, and I was the only one who put forward alternative proposals, questioning the validity of the external consultant’s report in April 2014.

Where were the Tories? Rushing around with a white plastic elephant having groupie photographs taken.

There has been no vote on whether to move County Hall to Ashington in full council, despite promises that there would be a debate. The decision was taken by cabinet months ago. The only related issue full council has debated since then has been the budget for 2016-17.

The Tories put forward a motion to remove the money allocated for the move of County Hall, and I jumped up to second it. Labour defeated it through weight of numbers and explained that the money allocated was either to support the move, or for County Hall refurbishment. That is indeed the budget entry; readers can check it for themselves.

I was the lead politician on budget matters for the Lib Dem administration. Knowing that the council must set a budget for legal purposes by a certain date, but not wanting to support the County Hall move at all, I abstained. I think I acted responsibly.

Some Lib Dem colleagues voted for the budget. Labour has been stressing that the County Hall move will deliver decentralisation so some jobs will go to each of the main towns. Whilst we still wait for details, I can understand why councillors from areas of the county far from Morpeth would welcome jobs coming to their towns. All councillors support the interests of their own area while bearing the interests of the wider county in mind.

But, as the Tories know, just because you support decentralisation does not mean you think County Hall should move.

The cheapest option, ignored by Labour, was to rebuild a smaller County Hall in Loansdean.

Decentralisation would fit with that much more cheaply and readily than building a new all-singing, all-dancing palace, with an atrium, conference facilities and performance space.

Labour is rushing to sell the County Hall site so that the decision is irrevocable before May’s elections – an unseemly rush, and not at all democratic. I do not want that to happen and have opposed the move all along. If the sale of the site is signed, sealed and delivered, I would look into ways to recover the situation, but if that were not possible without massive further waste of public money, that may not be realistic.

Promising to keep County Hall, even if it has been sold, is not necessarily deliverable. I doubt many residents would support councillors embroiling the council in expensive litigation to reverse the sale. In any case, the council’s Section 151 officer would use his powers to prevent funds being used to support such actions.

So Tory pledges are probably just another “white elephant”. The only thing that must be done if the site is irretrievably sold before May is ensure that the fullest possible decentralisation to the towns takes place and that employment and investment is fairly and equitably distributed. I do not have much faith that the current administration can or would achieve that.

Andrew Tebbutt

Member for Morpeth Kirkhill