A MULTI-MILLION pound education project in Northumberland has been temporarily put on hold – amid fears it might not deliver enough benefits for the recession-hit local economy.
Opposition county councillors are concerned that the £48m investment to create a new academy school in the Hirst area of Ashington might not provide sufficient employment or training opportunities for local people.
They are pressing for safeguards to ensure that the national company awarded the lucrative contract delivers a much-needed boost for the economy of the area.
Earlier this week the county council’s Liberal Democrat executive agreed to select a preferred partner to design and construct the 2,700-student academy, which will be built on five separate sites in Ashington, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea and Lynemouth.
Now that decision has been officially ‘called in’ by opposition members, meaning the procurement process is put on hold and will be discussed further at a special meeting of the council’s scrutiny committee next week.
The creation of the academy, which is to be sponsored by the Church of England and the Duke of Northumberland, is seen as an opportunity to secure local employment and apprenticeship training at a difficult time.
Yesterday the council’s Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, said: “We need to make sure this project creates local employment and has a really big impact on the local economy. We should be using it to get jobs and apprenticeships for Northumberland but there is nothing down in black and white.
“There are only six national contractors allowed to do these schemes, but that doesn’t mean we give up all local control. The terms of the tender are down to the county council, and we should specify that we want to see local employment and so much in the way of apprenticeships and training.
“The county council has a responsibility to make sure that these projects deliver for Northumberland.”
County Liberal Democrat leader Jeff Reid said: “As far as I am concerned this call-in is a complete waste of time and just slows the whole process down. We have to work within the rules and can’t insist on a contract that disadvantages people. We have already made it clear, as an administration, that we will be pressing whoever is awarded this contract to employ as many local people as they can, and provide local apprenticeships. That will be part of the contract negotiations. I don’t think it is going to be a very difficult task to persuade them to act in a socially responsible manner.”
The controversial Hirst reorganisation involves the closure of 10 schools in the local partnership.