County spent our Big Lottery money

A DEDICATED group of volunteers which helped establish dozens of community groups in north Northumberland has decided to disband, after cash allocated for a play officer was redirected by county council officers without their knowledge.

Members of the Alnwick and District Cultural Management Group – which was set up seven years ago – were involved in securing funding through the Big Lottery Fund to pay for a full-time play officer to co-ordinate activities and projects in the community.

But when the post became vacant nine months ago and no replacement was found, they wrote to Northumberland County Council to ask what would happen to the £30,000 underspend which had been left over.

Despite repeated attempts to reclaim the cash, which would pay for play activities in the Alnwick area, the authority remained silent – only to finally admit last month that the funding had been redistributed within its own extended services network.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday, the group voted to dissolve despite being given a full apology on behalf of the council by Coun Jim Smith, executive member for customer services and culture.

Chairman James Etherington said: “This money was spent without our knowledge, consent or input.

“We received no word from the county council until we were informed how it had been spent.”

Lionel Bryan, the former chairman, added: “From day one, we asked where we stood with this money. We’ve spent thousands of hours of our own time helping community groups get up and running, yet have been treated with complete contempt and disdain by the county council.”

Coun Smith said: “I’m upset that there has been such a breakdown in communication. What has happened is very unfortunate and it must be investigated. I can only apologise on behalf of the council and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

During its existence, the group had a remarkable impact on local clubs and organisations, helping them set up and become self-sufficient.

Its experience assisted the St Oswald’s Way heritage walk in accessing grants totalling £170,000, ultimately worth £1.2million to the local economy, while Felton Arts Group and Alnwick and District Camera Club were both supported in bids worth £10,000.

The group helped set up the popular Bailiffgate Singers choir, which obtained £8,000 of external funding, and also assisted the Figure Moves Dance Project at Edlingham, enabling a £5,000 external grant, which allowed the group to pull in the rest of the funding to run a £30,000 project.

They also made grants, including £500 to the Alnmouth Arts Festival to create a website which resulted in around £100,000-worth of trade coming into the village over its four days.

The group has agreed to divide its remaining funds, totalling just under £500, to local projects.