Northumberland councillors vote against call-in of County Hall decision

Northumberland County Councillors have voted against a call-in of a decision relating to the planned move of their headquarters

Northumberland County Council, County Hall, Morpeth
Northumberland County Council, County Hall, Morpeth

A bid to hold up a North East council’s relocation has been kicked out.

Conservative and Liberal Democrats on Northumberland County Council had combined to halt he proposed switch of the authority’s headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington.

But today a committee chairman, from the council’s Labour administration, used her casting vote to prevent the action.

The decision came after the Tory group, and the party’s parliamentary candidate Anne-Marie Trevelyan, launched a campaign outside the council’s County Hall base with a banner referring to the proposed Ashington headquarters as Labour’s £40m white elephant.

The council revealed plans earlier this year to leave its Morpeth base and set up nine service hubs around the county as part of a move to save money and decentralise services, with claims the existing headquarters required major investment.

It later revealed its ambition to create a new headquarters at Ashington.

Morpeth Town Council set up a petition opposing the relocation, which 600 people signed.

Independent consultants then recommended the move go ahead claiming it would offer savings in the region of £10m to £14m over 25 years.

They also claimed the switch would generate economic activity of nearly £53 million for Ashington and £56 million for Morpeth by releasing County Hall for development.

Yet recommendations to develop a detailed move plan, with a view to the changes being implemented by 2018, were opposed by one vote at the authority’s economic prosperity and strategic services overview and scrutiny committee last month.

Instead calls were made for the council’s policy board to defer any decision until “much further work” has been undertaken, including the formation of a working group to re-examine the rationale behind the consultants’ reports.

Yet the policy board agreed earlier this month to support the original recommendations.

On the back of that, the policy board’s decision was called in by six members of the Tory and Lib Dem opposition groups, who sought to have an all-party working group appointed to examine the case for the relocation.

At a meeting of an authority overview and scrutiny committee at which the call-in was considered today, Lib Dem Coun Andrew Tebbutt said: “Members want the opportunity to genuinely be involved in consideration of the business plan.

“If that happens, it will be good. If it does not, this will continue to be contentious. It will continue to be a blot on the horizon for Northumberland County Council.”

Yet the call-in was defeated on the casting vote of Labour chairman Alyson Wallace, after members had voted five five.

Mrs Trevelyan, whose banner read, “Say no to Labour’s £40m Ashington HQ.”, said after the meeting: “This is far too big a decision for the Labour administration to take without a full examination of the facts. As an accountant, I am far from convinced that their report has even begun to justify this huge expenditure and use of taxpayers’ money.”

Yet a Labour group spokesperson said: “The call in was ill judged in our view and it would have been sensible for it to be withdrawn given that it was seeking discussion and debate on a report that hadn’t been written and on decisions yet to be taken.

“The opposition parties who backed this ill judged call in would be better served backing our process which is tailored to make sure the economic benefits of the council are spread across the county rather than concentrated in one place.

“We would urge the opposition parties to play a constructive role in decisions we’re being forced to consider by the need to make over £130m cuts from central government rather than desperately seeking political advantage.”

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