Coun Grant Davey, Leader of Northumberland County Council, has been at great pains to explain the reasoning behind his dream of relocating County Hall from Morpeth to Ashington, although the content of his argument does seem to change from time to time.
The build cost of this project has ballooned to around £27million, although this figure has been escalating regularly. The distance from Morpeth to Ashington is some five miles, making a cost to council taxpayers of £5million per mile to move.
The lifetime cost of the new County Hall project is now approaching £60million of taxpayers’ money, and so it is not surprising that there is a great deal of public interest in what many see as an unnecessary and unjustified attempt to relocate the main operational centre of the county council.
However, despite the many hundreds of words in the Press by Coun Davey, and the flawed council reports which have been issued, there has still been no plausible or realistic justification for this hugely expensive use of public money.
Of the supposed economic benefits of this investment, a close reading of the consultants’ report shows that little will filter down to Ashington, but that any benefit will be spread across the whole region.
In a kind of ideological muddle, Labour has a vision of transforming a whole area and boosting widespread economic wellbeing by creating a single building that will house local government officers in part of a town.
But it takes more than this to bring about regeneration — no matter how expensive the building might be. What is needed is a much more balanced approach within an overall strategic plan for the community. In fact, this plan of taking valuable land for the council headquarters could well have the adverse effect in that locality of actually crowding out any future development in that area which might be more suited to the town centre.
Labour should perhaps study examples elsewhere and look at how successful Conservatives have been with transformation projects in a range of towns and cities across the UK. Nearer to home, the Conservative Government-funded Morpeth Link Road will bring huge benefits, as will the Morpeth Flood Alleviation Scheme. Some infrastructure schemes can make a difference to the whole community.
Perhaps Labour should take less time being negative and embrace more positively the opportunities being offered by the Government under regional devolution through combined authorities so we might see more happening, more quickly. The opportunities are there to be taken.
Coun Davey’s other point about Morpeth County Hall being in such a state that future maintenance costs will be prohibitively expensive is not based on real fact.
There has been no recent independent condition survey carried out on the building so the councillor has no independent evidence to back up his claims of future maintenance costs. I suggest that this evidence is vital in the discussion. It is generally well-known that the present building is, in fact, still functional for all of its purposes.
All parties agree that the council should do all it can afford to help the county grow, but we need to consider all parts, not just one town. We have towns like Bedlington, Amble and Lynemouth that need equal attention, and rural towns and villages should also be key priorities.
If Labour is so sure that its idea of spending so much of taxpayers’ money in one single place is such a good plan, then why not ask the taxpayers directly about what they think?
Leader of Northumberland Conservatives