The political row between Northumberland’s rural and urban areas is raging again as a county MP reignites the debate on two distinct local authorities.
On the back of the county council’s Labour administration pushing forward with moving its headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington, Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, has proposed a ‘fairer system’.
This would involve one rural authority for the former boroughs of Alnwick, Berwick, Castle Morpeth and Tynedale and an urban council made up of Blyth Valley and Wansbeck.
In his column today in our sister paper, the Morpeth Herald, he sets out the reasons for his suggestion in detail.
“I passionately believe in localism and that the best possible decisions are those that are taken locally, with true local interest at heart,” he writes.
But one of Labour’s councillors in the north of the county has hit back at this proposal, describing it as a ‘blatant power grab’ which was ‘cooked up in the west’.
Mr Opperman writes: “If Labour wants to change the way the council is run by shifting it to Ashington, perhaps it is time for the rest of the county to look at what serves our interests best too and how we can return as many local jobs as possible.
“I don’t believe that needs a £40million move to Ashington into what would be white-elephant headquarters.
“My view is that if Labour wants to scrap County Hall at Morpeth, then in that new settlement, the rest of the county deserves a fair and equal deal, not one that is in a different league to what is being planned for Ashington.”
However, Labour has pointed out that wards such as Chevington, Ellington, Hartburn, Longhorsley, Lynemouth and Ulgham, which they say have traditionally enjoyed close links with the south-east of Northumberland, especially through the rural coalfields, haven’t been consulted by the Tories on the proposal to split the county in two.
A separate rural council would have a much smaller tax base – 50.3 per cent of the county’s population live in the urban south-east – and it would attract a significantly smaller government grant because of the government changes to ‘sparsity factors’, say Labour.
They estimate the rural council would have to triple council-tax bills just to stand still, meaning the average band D tax bill would jump from £1,399.61 to £4,198.83, and would face significant issus in delivering services.
Coun Dickinson, who is also Labour’s Parliamentary Prospective Candidate for Berwick, said: “This plan, cooked up by Guy Opperman, just doesn’t add up.
“He fails to mention his Government is cutting the council budget by a third over the next three years and yet he wants the cost of a new council to fall on the shoulders of fewer taxpayers in the north and the west.
“We estimate this would see council-tax bills triple and set-up costs for a new council of above £10million at a time when council budgets are being slashed.
“We really need to know if the Conservatives and Lib Dems in north Northumberland back this plan or if they’ve even been consulted about this prior to Guy Opperman’s reckless gamble with the future of council services.”