We have to look after Ashington as well as Morpeth

Northumberland County Council leader Grant Davey on why it must act now to make sure all of the county's town centres can thrive

Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council
Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council

In Northumberland we are committed to doing everything in our power to support economic growth in the county.

And as leader of the council I need to make sure we are all pulling in the same direction for the benefit of every single person who live, visits or invests here.

It’s a long term plan, ambitious in scope and vision, but vital for our future.

A major part of our plans for economic growth and the creation of 10,000 jobs over the coming years involve boosting the vibrancy and health of all our town centres.

We see them as a fundamental part of sustaining our communities in the future. Without economic growth to provide jobs and the demand for decent homes there is a real danger our residents will increasingly be dependent on work outside our borders.

In these difficult economic times it’s crucial we are on the front foot and make best use of our assets in town centres as a lever for growth.

There is an important economic argument underlying our approach. The county has historically been a place with varying levels of growth. If we are to achieve our vision of a county with local jobs growth in all places we must develop a more equitable pattern of growth.

We don’t pretend this is an easy task, a short term one or one that may be affected by global economic forces beyond our control. But by using our assets to intervene where no-one else will, we can boost the future prosperity of the county and the North East.

We are delivering change across Northumberland. We have industrial, populous places like Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth and Cramlington where a high proportion of our population lives and works. It is a centre for manufacturing and engineering with specialisms in oil, gas and pharmaceuticals.

It is also an area with distinct locational advantages like the deep water Port of Blyth - well positioned to grow our strengths in wider energy industries.

However, parts of these areas have been disadvantaged due to a lack of investment appetite which pre dates the economic downturn of 2009.

These communities are strong with a proud history, but we cannot shy away from the reality that in some places there are significant challenges with levels of unemployment, attainment and child poverty and accessibility to the regional jobs market.

Conversely there are towns like Morpeth, Ponteland, Prudhoe and Hexham that are extremely popular for both residents and visitors and where, crucially, the private sector is more likely to invest and support aspirations for growth.

But you only have to look at this great county to that geographically Northumberland is predominantly a rural place. Towns like Berwick, Alnwick, Amble, and Haltwhistle and the huge number of distinctive places in rural areas are all seeking a sustainable future.

It’s obvious there are considerable differences at town, estate and even street level across Northumberland. Our task is to be sensitive to this as we put plans in place to contribute to local economic growth in future.

Amble is a good example where the town is focusing on a new strategy to capitalise on its strengths in the fisheries sector to find a new purpose following the demise of traditional industry and has seen recent success with the opening of the new harbour development.

The new Northumberland Seafood Centre at Amble
The new Northumberland Seafood Centre at Amble

The prospects for growth in rural areas have been further bolstered by the news in last year’s Local Growth Deal that the North East Rural Growth Network funding from the Government is to be extended.

This builds on a successful £5.5m pilot project this council has managed and co-ordinated with our partners in Gateshead and Durham and now there is up to £30m investment that projects from Northumberland and others can be a part of over the next five years.

Much of this is led and driven by local communities through the introduction of neighbourhood plans. Similarly we have devolved the decision making on how parking operates, meaning town councils can see the benefits of locally made decisions on our high streets.

In the private sector, new initiatives such as the proposed Business Improvement District (BID) in Hexham could bring up to £1m of new funding into the town led by and for the local business community.

Our role as a council is now about enabling developments or sensitively investing to unlock wider growth to make good places even better.

However, there remains a case in some places where intervention is needed for us to push ahead using council assets to unlock and drive significant change.

This is one of the key drivers for our accommodation review.

We want to find new ways to grow and develop town centres across Northumberland while at the same time cutting our costs and improving the facilities we use to deliver a whole range of services.

The council has a portfolio of 89 properties across nine main towns in the county and projects are now moving at pace to support each town’s renewal and development.

There is around £27m in capital income earmarked across the estate that will support economic growth. Developing new integrated facilities in each of towns will help the council make £3.4m in savings - safeguarding frontline services and local jobs.

Our approach to putting assets at the forefront of town centre renewal includes a number of major projects which are part of a larger masterplan to revive our towns. This includes the relocation of our HQ to Ashington and the proposed development of new major education and community facilities on our current site in Morpeth.

The rationale for this move is to address the reality of imbalances in economic performance in the two towns, despite repeated attempts to improve fortunes in Ashington. It is not prompted by a desire to move County Hall as part of a political project to move the council to the south east of Northumberland.

To stay in Morpeth will require a costly programme of repair and maintenance. This is a town widely recognised to have developed substantially as a shopping destination with the Sanderson’s Arcade development.

The town is becoming better connected than ever by the new £30m South East Northumberland Link Road and investment in the dualling of the A1, both of which have been contributed to or heavily lobbied for by this council.

Ashington, while just a few miles away, is almost the polar opposite. There has been good news lately with the arrival of Akzo Nobel investing £120m in a cutting edge paint manufacturing facility alongside the recent improvements to Northumberland College.

The town centre has a number of strengths but it has suffered from years of decline and disinvestment, seen most recently with the closure of the Alcan Smelter. Popular retailers have left and buildings have been left a shadow of their former selves. There is a cumulative long-term impact on the potential of the town to truly thrive which has now fuelled wider community concerns about safety and crime.

Andy Jackson, project director at AkzoNobel at the new Ashington plant
Andy Jackson, project director at AkzoNobel at the new Ashington plant

Our job is to inject confidence in this place to enable it to move forward at pace once again.

That’s why Arch, the Northumberland Development Company, have worked with local partners to plan a £74m programme of investment in the town over the next decade. It’s also why we are so focused on securing the re-opening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne Rail Line to ensure that the town and wider community is an accessible and commercially attractive part of the region.

The County Hall move, which over 25 years looks broadly cost neutral compared to staying at the Morpeth site, does two things - it will enable Morpeth to continue to be a popular place with the potential of having a much improved leisure, education and housing offer and it gives confidence and a focus to investment in Ashington.

Without this anchor it is difficult to see how the town centre in Ashington and services in Morpeth can be transformed and put on a sounder footing.

There is no doubt our integrated investment approach is now reaping dividends. Arch has supported major interventions to increase inclusion in economic growth focusing on our sector strengths and excellent locations for energy and manufacturing specialisms to boost economic performance.

This includes in Blyth where almost £22m has been invested to support communities and businesses like the new Blyth Workspace. There has also been the good news that the Tesco site in Bedlington has been purchased by Arch and a new masterplan can now be progressed for the town.

In Cramlington the town has seen success with the expansion of the Manor Walks Shopping centre and we are supporting the development of major housing plans for the town as well as maintaining strategic employment sites that could bolster existing strengths in manufacturing and engineering.

In commuter and rural communities in north and west Northumberland there are major projects and targeted interventions.

In Berwick around £5.5m has been invested in new commercial office developments, in Amble £7m is making a tremendous difference including the Seafood Town project transforming the town centre with new facilities to attract visitors and businesses.

In Prudhoe and Hexham almost £6m is invested in industrial estate and bus station redevelopments respectively.

There is no doubt that some communities in Northumberland have taken up the mantle themselves to drive improvements and the private sector has acted where there is confidence to do so. There are a huge number of partners who can influence change and growth in our towns and communities and many have done extraordinary things.

However, we are now left with such an imbalance across Northumberland that we are asking ourselves the question - if we don’t act and lead action to ensure that every major town and its communities have a chance to thrive, then who will?”

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