Investment in education and transport infrastructure plus the Discover our Land campaign were highlighted at Northumberland County Council’s State of the Area debate today.
The event this morning had been preceded by a scrutiny committee meeting where the authority’s budget for the coming years had been discussed, so the focus turned to a more general strategic overview from the Conservative administration at County Hall.
But, while it was billed as a debate, the councillors in attendance – with the exception of two independents – were all Tories, meaning the challenge may not have been as rigorous as it would have been if any opposition Labour or Lib Dem members had turned up.
Nonetheless, there were questions asked and issues put to the leadership, ranging from spending on schools and building infrastructure to support new homes to anti-social behaviour and road upgrades.
Council leader Peter Jackson opened the meeting by providing an overview of some of his administration’s key areas of focus, including the new Local Plan, car-parking improvements and pushing for infrastructure improvements, such as the Northumberland-to-Newcastle rail line and a Blyth relief road.
He also highlighted the North of Tyne devolution deal and the Borderland Inclusive Growth Deal, which are ‘so important because we currently have this low-wage economy’.
Coun Jackson was followed by Coun Wayne Daley, the cabinet member for children’s services, who talked about the efforts being made to improve educational standards at all levels – early years, primary, secondary, special educational needs and adult learning – as well as the ongoing investment in new school buildings.
However, Coun Georgina Hill, the independent member for Berwick East, questioned the fact that the investment was in the south and the west with none in the north, while Coun Malcolm Robinson, who represents Bedlington West, said the money being spent in certain areas seemed to be disproportionate to the population.
In both cases, Coun Daley emphasised that all decisions are based on business cases, adding that ‘running around with a blank chequebook is not the answer’.
The final presentation was from Coun Cath Homer on Discover our Land, the campaign recently launched by the council to encourage people to live, work, visit and invest in Northumberland.
So far, the ‘social movement’, which aims to build a following of people to promote and share everything that is great about the county, has had 75,000 engagements on Facebook and it has reached more than 1.5million people on Twitter.
Coun Homer said: “It’s not all about budget cuts and efficiencies, this is about positivity, aspiration and making the best of opportunities.”
Coun Robinson noted that this was about projecting the right image of the county, while the wrong image is the youth anti-social behaviour which blights Bedlington at weekends, which ‘cuts across all these issues like tourism and education’.
In response to his call for something to be done, Coun Daley said that this could be an issue in which the revamped and ‘more responsive’ youth service could get involved.
Meanwhile, Coun Jeff Watson was offered reassurances over the required infrastructure being provided to support all the new homes, while Coun Ian Hutchinson was concerned about Highways England’s proposals for roundabout improvements on the A69 when he felt that dualling the stretch further west would be far more beneficial.
Coun Jackson said: “Highways England says that the A69 is a project in incremental steps.”
Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services, added: “It’s a difficult balance between welcoming any investment and trying to make sure it’s the right investment.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service