'Fresh start' as new company aims to Advance Northumberland
Today marks the start of a new era as a line is drawn under Arch and it is replaced by Advance Northumberland as the county council's development company.
Councillors voted to approve the official steps needed to transfer all of the assets and trade to the new holding company at last week’s full meeting of the authority.
The council’s Conservative administration, which pledged ‘to scrap Arch’ in its manifesto ahead of last May’s elections, believes it was necessary to ‘create a positive future and outlook for the development company and address some of the reputational issues’. Serious concerns about spending and governance at Arch in recent years have been revealed publicly over the last year.
The transition means that it’s time for ‘a fresh start, a new direction and a chance for the county to move on’, according to Advance’s chairman, Coun Richard Wearmouth.
“Advance as a name is something we are looking to achieve,” he said. “It was chosen by staff and it’s what the staff want to do.”
Town centres will be one of the key areas of focus, while social mobility is another important issue that both Advance and the council are keen to tackle; the county often fares badly in national league tables of this measure.
Ashington and Bedlington are key towns where major projects are ongoing, while there is also work to do in places like Hexham, ‘which have traditionally been stronger’, Coun Wearmouth said.
“It’s about maximising the amount of activity in the county, it’s pointless duplicating what the private sector is doing.
“If someone wants to spend money in Northumberland, we won’t stand in their way, in fact we will facilitate it. We will intervene where intervention is necessary.”
He explained that this could range from building a portfolio of land before bringing a partner in or it may require more work to develop the scheme from Advance, such as planning applications.
“Bedlington is a great example; the Tesco development floundered, we came in, developed a scheme and there are spades in the ground this week,” he said. “It’s been a long process, but it couldn’t happen without someone like Advance.”
What those involved in the company hope will be another success story is the controversial redevelopment of the Portland Park site – once lined up for the county council’s new headquarters – to help regenerate Ashington town centre.
And Coun Wearmouth revealed that Advance is ‘there or thereabouts’ with a potential operator of the cinema proposed at the heart of that development. He said there is a bit more work to do on the deal, but it should be confirmed in the new year.
“Talking to people who want to invest in Ashington, people are very, very keen,” he added. “We are just making sure that we get that right.”
Chris Sayers, who was previously regional director of BT and is currently chairman of governors at Northumbria University, is one of the board members of Advance Northumberland.
“It’s difficult to think how we would have a scheme like that [Bedlington] without Advance coming in and taking it forward,” he said. “It’s very good news.
“It’s not about stopping Arch and starting Advance. Many things Arch did were of great benefit, so it’s a case of making sure we weren’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“The aim is to drive forward an agenda for the county, not for the council. The name is not random, it’s an affirmation of us taking the county forward.
“Advance Northumberland is a great opportunity to be the glue to bring some of that wider social and community benefit together.”
Explaining his involvement with the company, Mr Sayers said: “Despite some of the problems which have come to light, overall I think Arch and absolutely Advance Northumberland are a positive force for good in the county. I live in Northumberland and this is my home.
“It’s a pleasure to be on the Advance Northumberland board and I have been very impressed with the changes made over the last year or so.”
The pair also believe that the relaunch comes at a really crucial time for the county and the wider region, with the North of Tyne devolution deal, the Borderlands growth deal and, of course, Brexit.
Coun Wearmouth said: “It’s a time of real change – if we are brave and bold then we can affect a different outcome.
“We have a booming renewable-energy sector, fantastic agri and pharma businesses, and a brilliant opportunity to capitalise on tourism; the history of Northumberland has been a little bit of a missed opportunity.
“As a board, we are looking at those opportunities and seeing what we can project into that.”
Mr Sayers added: “As a county, we need to get on the front foot about promoting Northumberland. Advance is a powerful voice within that.”
Much has been made of the council’s financial relationship with Arch – the hefty loans made to the company and how much or little of the profits fed back into supporting council services.
Coun Wearmouth said: “The most important thing is the communities we are working in and making them pleasant places to live, work and play. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be profitable for the council, but there may be some times where the profit margin is tight but the project is worthwhile or it meets strategic aims.
“Arch has always delivered a charitable donation (of £1million) to Active Northumberland, but it hasn’t been a money-spinner with property speculation. There’s no reason for us to try to make money on property. The charitable donation to Active will continue though.”
Opponents of the ‘running down’ of Arch and the creation of its replacement have also raised concerns about schemes being cancelled or assets being sold off.
“I don’t think there’s been many cancelled projects, we have refined them,” Coun Wearmouth said. “We have been making sure they are not vanity projects.”
In terms of property and developments outside the county, which are not part of the Advance ethos, Coun Wearmouth said: “We will retreat from positions where we can in a way that’s financially acceptable for the board and the council.
“We don’t want to own land outside the county and where we get a fair offer, we are minded to accept those because it can help pay the loans back to the council.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service