Careful balance between wishes and commercial opportunities

Northumberland Hall
Northumberland Hall

A county-council chief said he wants to keep stakeholders in the loop about future plans for buildings in Alnwick, but underlined that his brief is to reduce costs.

As revealed by the Gazette in March, Northumberland County Council has released proposals for how a number of key buildings in Alnwick will be used in the future as part of a blueprint for the county’s main towns.

It is suggested that the Northumberland Hall is to receive the major investment it has so long required, to transform it into a wedding venue with opportunities for businesses to locate on the ground floor.

Looking further ahead, discussions are ongoing over the possibility of the Playhouse becoming a community hub, housing the library, visitor information, customer services and registrars.

At last Thursday night’s meeting of Alnwick Town Council, members heard from Paul Leo, the county council’s head of strategic estates, who explained that the authority’s buildings were not sorted out following local government reorganisation and the introduction of the unitary authority in 2009.

“Given the financial constraints, if we don’t start reducing our spend on buildings now, the problem will grow,” he said, adding that while the council can invest now, particularly if it saves money in the long run, the risk in the future is not being able to do that.

Mr Leo answered a number of questions from councillors and members of the neighbourhood plan steering group, taking on board certain points and pledging to investigate various options, for example, how the public toilets could be improved via the investment in the Northumberland Hall.

However, he was also clear in highlighting that the proposals needed to be commercial and his brief was to save money and get rid of unnecessary buildings. “What I’m being instructed to do is get a move on and really it should have been done five years ago,” he said.

Responding to various suggestions, he said the plans for the Northumberland Hall and Alnwick Playhouse are the best currently in terms of ensuring the viability of those venues, as well as the library.

His vision was of the arts venue as a hub for residents and visitors ‘for information, knowledge, entertainment and culture’. “We don’t want to undermine the Playhouse programme, but how can we make the building more vibrant?” he added.

On the Northumberland Hall, he said: “We would say Alnwick is not punching its weight for weddings and there’s so many opportunities.”

A one-stop site for office staff

The new super-depot, including a fire station, at Lionheart Industrial Estate, already has the green light, which will free up the site on South Road. Mr Leo said this could be used for office accommodation, bringing in staff from a number of leased properties in the town. In the neighbourhood plan, this site was earmarked for housing.

However, this depends on the future of Lion House, which currently houses some county-council staff. Mr Leo said they can’t get a response from Defra about its plans for the site until later in the year.