Fresh row erupts over Northumberland toilet block branded 'vanity project'

A shuttered and run-down toilet block is again at the centre of a row in a Northumberland seaside town.

By Ben O'Connell
Tuesday, 5th January 2021, 6:00 am
The public toilets at Church Point in Newbiggin.
The public toilets at Church Point in Newbiggin.

Prior to that, the authority had allocated £40,000 across two years in its budget to refurbish the block at Church Point, before costs spiralled, leaving a £31,000 shortfall.

Councillors initially agreed to fund this, however, It was subsequently decided to cancel the project entirely following a behind-closed-doors extraordinary meeting.

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Now, the issue has reared its head again after the town council agreed at its November meeting to take on the building in an asset transfer from the county council.

And it has once more attracted anger from residents, whose core concern remains the same – that the project is a waste of money, particularly given there are public toilets on Front Street among others available in the town.

Much of the opposition to the scheme is being channelled through Newbiggin Voice, a community group followed by more than 750 people on Facebook, whose members told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that they are also unhappy that the decision is being made at a time when the council has reduced membership and there hasn’t been as much chance for the public to be involved given Covid-19 restrictions.

The town council pointed out that it has to carry out its duties despite the three vacancies and said that the ‘refurbishment will have very little cost to local people as contributions have successfully been obtained from neighbourhood services (at the county council) and section 106 regeneration contributions’.

A report to the November meeting of the town council stated that the annual costs for utilities and repairs, etc, are estimated at £3,400, but this includes business rates which are due to be abolished for public conveniences, ‘so likely £2,500 plus annual inflation’. It notes that the county council will provide £20,000, which is what it had budgeted for demolition.

However, opponents question whether all of the potential costs have been taken into account, while there remain concerns about the outlay for the refurbishment, which was previously quoted as £71,000.

They suggested that the proposal is a vanity project rather than something which meets the needs of the people of Newbiggin, and pointed out that if the goal is to boost the visitor economy then surely directing tourists to the toilets in the town centre would be a better option.

One member of Newbiggin Voice said: “We are not pulling our village down, we and other residents just think the money could be much better spent.”

Full statement from Newbiggin Town Council

‘The town council currently has three vacancies for which by-elections were requested by the electorate in February/March 2020. Due to coronavirus regulations, the polls for these elections were suspended and the vacancies will be filled in line with the May elections 2021.

‘The town council has and must continue to operate as a corporate body, carrying out its duties and functions with a legal quorum throughout this period.

‘The town council received notification of an opportunity to consider the asset transfer of the public conveniences near the Cresswell Arms/Church Point car park from Northumberland County Council at a time of greatly increased daily visitors to the town via Church Point car park.

‘Newbiggin-by-the-Sea has become increasingly popular for daily exercise relating to restrictions and our fantastic promenade is one of the best locations to maintain social distancing.

‘The coronavirus restrictions have, however, seen the temporary closure of Maritime Centre and restrictions for public access in the use of the facilities there and elsewhere.

‘The asset transfer of the public conveniences has provided an opportunity to consider significant improvement in disabled accessible facilities which the town council considers a high priority along with regeneration and improved visitor attraction.

‘The town council agreed to accept the asset transfer at a meeting on November 18 and will be aiming to refurbish the facilities to Changing Places standard.

‘The refurbishment will have very little cost to local people as contributions have successfully been obtained from neighbourhood services (at the county council) and section 106 regeneration contributions.’

What did Northumberland County Council say?

A spokeswoman said: “We have been aware of discussions within the town council about the potential redevelopment of the toilet block and a possible asset transfer from the county council to the town.

“Northumberland County Council has already invested in a new modern public toilet facility at Front Street and has no plans for further investment in toilet facilities in the town.

“We closed the old toilet block several years ago and the building is no longer of any use to this council, is in a poor state of repairs and has attracted complaints. We therefore need to either transfer it to the town council, or demolish it and reinstate the site, and we need to do this work in this financial year.

“We therefore advised the town council of our intentions and they have asked us to transfer the toilet block to them so that they can redevelop the site as part of their wider regeneration plans for the town.

“We are now progressing their community asset transfer request on this basis and that the town council takes on all responsibility for it in the future.”

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