Council leaders in Northumberland have announced surprise plans to sell off their civic headquarters in a bid to tackle a £130m budget deficit.
Labour bosses at Northumberland County Council are looking at selling off County Hall at Morpeth as they seek to make the multi-million pound savings required of them by the Government over the next four years.
The authority is looking at moving staff to up to nine bases around the county, with County Hall set to be sold off, most likely to a housing developer.
However, fears have been voiced in Morpeth that the loss of the council’s base will have a “huge impact” on the town’s economy by reducing the number of people employed there.
Housing development is also likely to be unpopular in a community that is already fighting proposals from large housebuilders keen to cash in on its commuter-belt value.
County Hall opened in April 1981 with a second phase unveiled the following June.
Labour bosses say the building is now in need of more than £10m of repairs to bring it up to “the most basic modern standard as a prime workplace for staff.” The authority says that County Hall’s £450,000 energy bill could also be reduced by moving to nine “huge” town centre buildings.
Labour leaders are now looking into moving the approximate 1,000 staff based at County Hall to a potential nine sites around Northumberland. They have confirmed these would include Prospect House at Hexham, the former home of the now defunct Tynedale Council, which is undergoing a £1.6m overhaul, allowing it to host 100 to 150 staff.
The county has also revealed that Berwick, Blyth and Ashington are being considered as locations. Other buildings belonging to the former district councils in Northumberland could also house displaced staff, including Allerburn House at Alnwick.
The council hopes to recoup the full £130m it needs to make in savings over the next four years from the sale of County Hall.
The authority has said it will consider all possible uses for the site, although it is likely to be sold to a housing developer with potential for it to accommodate 2,000 homes.
Labour bosses say the move ties in with their previous pledges to bring services close to county residents, bringing jobs into Northumberland’s towns, as well as helping find the savings required of them by the government.
Council and Labour group leader Grant Davey said: “The council is considering all future office requirements and part of that review will include the future of County Hall in Morpeth.
“The building is inefficient, expensive to run and requires major investment to deal with a number of outstanding maintenance issues such as the replacement of lifts, major refurbishment of the roof and new lighting. We estimate that this could cost well over £10m.
“Technology and the changing needs of the council mean that it is important that every opportunity is explored to reduce the overheads of the council and support the delivery of services.
“We’ll be making a full assessment of the options during the coming months before any key decisions are made.”
However, Morpeth Town Council has voiced alarm that the sale of County Hall “will have a huge impact on Morpeth’s economy and future development.”
In a question to a meeting of the county’s North area committee last night, Liberal Democrat Coun David Parker asked for reassurance that the town council and residents be consulted and involved in any changes “so that any negative impact on Morpeth can be mitigated.”
He also asked that any change in use be identified in the county’s core strategy planning document, given that “the loss of Morpeth’s main employer would have a knock on effect regarding the sustainability of the massive future housing growth currently being proposed.”
Coun Parker also asked that those preparing a new neighbourhood plan for Morpeth also be informed of the intentions for the site and that the loss of County Hall as an employer be considered “immediately in all decision making procedures regarding housing growth.”
He said last night: “The sort of thing the council is investigating raises all sorts of issues about the development in the south of the town. This particular proposal from the county council would upset the balance because undoubtedly a major site like that could lead to some form of comprehensive development.”