As regards the future of County Hall, we are already being bombarded by bluster in the lead up to elections next May, and truth is in danger of being lost in the dense blue fog it creates. The records show that it was me who first flagged up to local people, as well as Opposition councillors, that this move was being proposed as far back as January 2014. It was me who led on this in Scrutiny and I was the only one who put forward alternative proposals, questioning the validity of the external consultant’s report in April 2014. Where were the Tories? Rushing around with a white plastic elephant having groupie photographs taken to publicise their brilliant work in opposition – or not!
Once and for all, there has been NO VOTE ON WHETHER TO MOVE COUNTY HALL TO ASHINGTON in Full Council, despite promises that there would be such a debate. The decision was taken by Cabinet many months ago. The only related issue Full Council has debated since then has been the budget for 2016-17. The Tories put forward a motion to remove from the budget money allocated for supporting the move to County Hall, and I jumped up to second that motion. Naturally, Labour defeated the motion through weight of numbers. They explained that the money allocated was either to support the move, or for County Hall refurbishment. That is indeed the budget entry; readers can check it for themselves. I was the lead politician on budget matters for the Lib Dem Administration; knowing that the Council must set a budget for legal purposes by a certain date, but not wanting to support the County Hall move at all, I abstained rather than voting against. I think I acted responsibly.
Some of my Lib Dem colleagues voted for the budget, and this too needs to be understood. Labour have been stressing that the County Hall move will deliver some decentralisation, so some jobs will go to each of the main towns. Whilst we still wait for details on this, I can fully understand why councillors from areas of the county far from Morpeth would welcome jobs coming to their towns. All councillors support the interests of their own area while bearing the interests of the wider county in mind.
But, as the Tories know well, just because you support decentralisation does not mean that you think County Hall should move. Labour has tried to convince the public that the Tories are split over this, but the Tories have denied it. After all, the cheapest option, ignored by Labour, was to rebuild a smaller County Hall in Loansdean. Decentralisation would fit with that much more cheaply and readily than building a new all singing all dancing palace, with an atrium, conference facilities and performance space.
Labour are rushing to sell off the County Hall site so that the decision is irrevocable before next May’s elections. An unseemly rush, and not at all democratic. I do not want that to happen and have opposed the move all along. If the sale of the site is signed, sealed and delivered, I would certainly look into potential ways to recover the situation, but, if that were not possible without massive further waste of public money, that may not be realistic. Promising to keep County Hall even if it has been sold is not necessarily deliverable, and both naïve and misleading. I doubt many residents would support councillors embroiling the Council in expensive litigation in an attempt to reverse the sale. In any case the Council’s Section 151 Officer would certainly use his powers to prevent Council funds being used to support such actions. So Tory pledges are probably just another “white elephant”. The only thing that must be done if the site is irretrievably sold before May 2017 is to ensure that the fullest possible decentralisation to the other main towns takes place and that employment and investment in those towns are fairly and equitably distributed. That isn’t something I have much faith in the current Labour Administration to achieve.