A North East council has revealed plans to move its headquarters from one county town to another, in a move which it claims will save £13m.
Northumberland County Council has announced it is seeking to create a smaller corporate headquarters four miles away at Ashington, having previously said it was looking to sell its current base at County Hall in Morpeth.
The move last night met with dismay in Morpeth, where opponents voiced fears over the impact on the community.
It was, however, applauded in Ashington, with Sir John Hall - leader of the community’s Town Team - saying it would provide much-needed regeneration.
County Hall opened in April 1981 after the authority moved out of Newcastle, with a second phase unveiled the following June.
The county council announced in January it was looking at selling the site as it sought to make savings of £130m over the next four years.
The Labour-run authority was looking at moving staff to up to nine bases around the county, with the County Hall site most likely to be sold to a housing developer.
Bosses cited a £10m-plus repair bill for County Hall.
Yet at the time, opposition groups accused authority leaders of seeking to move power to their south-east Northumberland heartland.
The council has now revealed it is looking to create a new-build headquarters capable of accommodating 1,000 staff at Ashington.
It would form part of a £38m mixed development it has asked Northumberland development company Arch to prepare, including the town’s already under-construction new leisure centre, in the largely redundant area of the former Asda store on Lintonville Terrace.
The move would not happen for four years, with some money having to be spent on repairs at County Hall to allow staff to continue working there in the meantime.
The council says the plan has the potential to save it £13m over 25 years, with the running costs of County Hall over that time put at £41m and the cost of the changes said to be £28m.
Yet county and town councillor for Morpeth Andrew Tebbutt, who helped mount a petition against the closure of County Hall which 500 people have signed, last night said: “I think the original decision to build County Hall at Morpeth was about recognising the diversity of the county and Morpeth was the central point in relation to all points north, east, south and west.
“Moving the headquarters to Ashington is not the right thing to do. It makes accessibility more difficult for people in all parts of Northumberland.”
He claimed developing the County Hall site as housing “fundamentally alters all the plans that have been put together over the last 15 or 20 years as to how Morpeth would develop as an ancient market town”.
Coun Tebbutt added: “I think it is the Labour Party saying our heartland is Ashington and Blyth and this is us returning the county to Ashington and Blyth.”
But Sir John said: “It is a very, very bold and brave initiative by the county council.
“If it comes off it will be great for Ashington.
“When you look at the south east of the county, you look at Ashington. It certainly needs attention.
“The only way the town centre is going to be regenerated is by this bold move by the county council.”
Council leader Grant Davey said: “The council is working in a challenging financial context.
“A significantly reduced budget means we have to change the way we do business, looking at everything we do and taking action to reduce costs and support local communities.
“New offices mean we could benefit from lower running costs, create a more flexible environment for new ways of working and accommodation fit for 21st Century working.”