An MP has described claims to move County Hall from Morpeth would benefit the North East as “a multi-million pound joke at the taxpayer’s expense.”
Plans to move Northumberland County Council’s base could have £100m worth of benefits for two county towns, independent consultants have claimed.
The proposed move from County Hall at Morpeth to Ashington would provide boons of £56m to the former and £52.8m to the latter, their report says.
The consultants also claim a move from the current base would provide an overall saving of £10m to £14m over 25 years.
The council’s boss has said there is a “very strong case” for the move and that the savings would help the authority deal with “challenging budget reductions.”
However, politicians have labelled the claimed figures “ludicrous” - particularly in relation to the town which stands to lose the base - and accused the authority’s ruling party of seeking to create “Labourland” in its perceived South East Northumberland heartland.
The council announced plans to sell the Morpeth site earlier this year, possibly to a housing developer, and to create nine service hubs in its place.
Labour leaders said the move was designed to save money on the back of government cuts to its budget. They later revealed plans to create a new base at Ashington.
Morpeth Town Council called for justification for the move and set up a petition which 600 people signed.
The county council has now released the results of work undertaken by consultants ERS.
They calculated that all the alternative locations suggested offer savings to the council in the region of £10m to £14m over 25 years.
The greatest benefit, the consultants said, would be generated by moving the council HQ to a new location.
They calculated that moving the council’s headquarters to Ashington would be worth £52.8m to the town. At the same time, releasing the current County Hall site for development would give Morpeth a £56m boost.
The report - which recommends that the relocation proceeds - will be considered by the council’s economic prosperity and strategic services overview and scrutiny committee next Tuesday before going to the authority’s policy board for a decision next month.
The council’s lead executive director Steven Mason said: “The difference in running costs in keeping County Hall in Morpeth compared to a number of other locations is marginal, but when the overall economic impact of the relocation is taken into account the case is very strong.
“The council will require a different approach to office working and office space over the next four years.
“We anticipate that officers will work more flexibly from different locations around the county, bringing our services and staff closer to communities.
“There will be opportunities to develop office space with ‘touch down’ and shared space across the county.
“Fewer work stations will be needed at the corporate headquarters.
“Importantly, money saved on property can reduce the impact on services of the challenging council budget reductions that have to be made in the coming years.”
Yet Hexham MP Conservative Guy Opperman described the plans as “a multi-million pound joke at the council taxpayers’ expense.”
He said “It is truly shocking that Labour are deciding to build themselves a brand new council headquarters in Ashington.
“The costs of this folly are going to be phenomenal.
“Even a low end estimate would put the cost at well over £40m and that is just the initial capital cost.
“The annual cost to the revenue budget of this debt repayment to pay for the thing will be around another £2.4m each year.
“It is hard working families and pensioners in my patch left picking up the bill.
“These quite shocking plans come just a year after they increased council tax claiming the council was short of cash.
“This whole ridiculous plan really does just add insult to injury.
“When I was first told I honestly did think it was a joke.
“Already local residents have dubbed it Labourland. The only difference is it that is us being taken for a ride.
“At a time when everyone is tightening their belts it is just the wrong thing on which to be spending council taxpayers’ money.
“The Labour leadership of this council is completely at odds with the rest of the county.”
Fellow Tory and Morpeth county councillor David Bawn added: “I fail to see how removing the town’s largest employer can possibly have a positive impact of £56 million on Morpeth.”
And county and town councillor for Morpeth Andrew Tebbutt, a Liberal Democrat, said: “Their prediction that it is worth £56m to the economy of Morpeth is quite frankly laughable. No way could they produce that level of economic benefit.
“To say it is going to save £10m to £14m over 25 years, which is peanuts anyway, is ludicrous.”