Councillor calls for abolition of Advance Northumberland after report revelations

Fresh calls have been made for Advance Northumberland to be scrapped.Fresh calls have been made for Advance Northumberland to be scrapped.
Fresh calls have been made for Advance Northumberland to be scrapped.
A councillor has called for Northumberland County Council’s development company to be shut down over revelations from the damning Max Caller report into governance at the authority.

The wide-ranging report detailed a number of shocking practices at the council, and dedicated a section to governance of the council’s owned companies – including Advance.

The development arm of the council was formed in 2017 as a successor to the much-criticised Arch. The Conservatives had pledged to get rid of Arch in the party’s manifesto prior to their election victory in the same year.

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Mr Caller’s report “commended” the review carried out into Advance in 2017, but noted that the council did not address its role as the whole owner of the company. The report noted that “early drafts of the reports did indeed raise some of these issues but were removed prior to the submission of the final report.”

Mr Caller added that “this raises concerns about openness and learning,” before adding: “Almost four years on from the establishment of Advance, the arrangements for an effective governance framework by the council are not yet in place.”

The report has caused a row among members – Cllr Georgina Hill, a long-term critic of both Arch and Advance, repeated her call for the company to be disbanded.

She said: “Arch and now Advance, from a governance and value for public money perspective has been an unmitigated disaster.

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"Just as we had the old Labour Administration trying to defend Arch, the Tory Administration are going to extraordinary lengths defending Advance – it might even be the case that certain individuals, with an interest crossing over both companies, are going for a mutual and disingenuous defence of ‘nothing to see here’.

“Advance owes NCC around £300m and it should have been shut down years ago with regeneration activity brought in-house so the interests of Northumberland residents not cronyism can be properly served.”

It may not be possible to bring regeneration activities in house due to the Localism Act 2011, which prevents councils from undertaking activities for a commercial purpose and means they must do so through owned companies like Advance.

Northumberland County Council was recently the subject of a section 114 report regarding its international business after it was deemed ‘unlawful’ for the same reason.

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Cllr Richard Wearmouth, the council’s deputy leader, hit back at Cllr Hill’s comments and said Advance is a “credit” to the county.

He said: “Through every means available to her, and over a significant period, Coun Hill has systematically sought to undermine Advance Northumberland for reasons only known to herself.

“During her time as chair of the council audit committee, Advance board members and staff were actively barred from attending meetings, meaning that committee members were denied the chance to ask questions of those running the organisation.

“Meetings chaired by Cllr Hill were regularly held in secret with information from reports selectively leaked online. This behaviour is simply weird.

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“You have to ask yourself why someone like Cllr Hill, who always talks about ‘transparency’ would oversee meetings in secret and without key officers and others present.

“The fact is Advance Northumberland is a credit to our county. They have been instrumental in securing projects like the Britishvolt gigafactory, JDR cables and others to Northumberland.

“They are working on other schemes that will bring thousands more jobs to our county; are delivering hundreds of affordable homes; and help new business start ups every day of the week.

“Cllr Hill’s comments are utterly reckless.”

Cllr Hill branded the accusations “absolute rubbish” and added: “Rather than attacking opponents, who have been proved right about the serious failings in both Arch and Advance, it is time that he accepted responsibility for his creation and tenure as Chairman of Advance and the huge liability faced by Northumberland taxpayers.

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“During my time as Chair, no staff were excluded from the Audit Committee and no part of any meetings excluded the press and public without approval by members and in accordance with Schedule 12 of the Local Govt Act 1972. All the leaks are one of many symptoms of a totally dysfunctional council.

“As Max Caller said there needs to be a fundamental reset in this council.”

A joint statement from Advance Northumberland and the county council was issued in response to Cllr Hill’s remarks.

It listed a number of vital projects it was involved in and added: “With regard to claims that Advance Northumberland owes the council money, these loans are to support projects as agreed and instructed by and on behalf of Northumberland County Council.

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“Advance Northumberland is a development company solely owned by the council, holding considerable residential, commercial assets and land on behalf of the Council (including Manor Walks Shopping Centre). These assets generate an income of which the council benefit from £14m every year which is paid in interest.

“As Advance is solely owned by the council, regeneration activities are serving the interests of Northumberland residents.

"And while the Max Caller report is a review of governance at the county council and not Advance Northumberland, Advance will continue to work with the council to implement and address any issues or areas of concern as deemed necessary.”

It added that the Active Northumberland board comprises of members from all the main political parties.