Mixed fortunes for Northumberland schools rebuilding plans after budget approved

Cllr Georgina Hill campaigned for greater investment in a Berwick school building programme.Cllr Georgina Hill campaigned for greater investment in a Berwick school building programme.
Cllr Georgina Hill campaigned for greater investment in a Berwick school building programme.
The development of plans for new Berwick schools will now start in the coming year, with an additional £20million earmarked for the project.

It comes following a successful amendment to Northumberland County Council’s budget and medium-term spending plans brought forward £250,000 to develop the business case into 2021-22 and to increase the overall commitment from £19.8million to around £40million.

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Georgina HillGeorgina Hill
Georgina Hill

The motion, put forward by Cllr Georgina Hill, the independent ward member for Berwick East, eventually secured support across all parties, passing by 46 votes to six, with seven abstentions. The overall budget was later approved by 37 votes to zero, with 21 abstentions.

Following the decision, Cllr Hill said: “I am absolutely delighted that my motion passed, which I was not expecting as the Conservatives were initially opposed to it, but I am pleased that they, or most of them, performed a U-turn.

“This is fantastic news for our town as our children and young people deserve this level of investment and to have first-class, modern education facilities.

“This investment may eventually be increased further depending on how many other schools and other education providers wish to take park and co-locate on the new campus.

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Berwick Academy.Berwick Academy.
Berwick Academy.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but today is a great day for our town, a major step forward and it is exciting to think what can now be achieved.”

Cllr Guy Renner-Thompson, the cabinet member for children’s services, had initially cautioned against the amendment, explaining that deciding on the future schools model in Berwick needs to come before drawing up plans for new buildings – the partnership currently remains a three-tier system while the Alnwick Partnership to the south is two-tier.

He added that he favours a campus model, with middle schools on the same site as the high school, which would need agreement from all of the schools and other partners.

However, Cllr Renner-Thompson, whose Bamburgh ward includes Berwick Partnership schools, did subsequently vote in favour of the motion and after the meeting said: “I look forward to working with the schools and other stakeholders to come up with a plan to make education in Berwick fit for the future.

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“The build is not due to start until 2023, but I have been clear that if a coherent plan can be formulated in the next year that build could be brought forward.”

Berwick’s other two county councillors, both Conservatives, voted to support the amendment and have also welcomed the boost.

Cllr Catherine Seymour (Berwick North) said: “I’m ecstatic and I welcome increased funding at this stage of planning in the budget for our new-build school(s) and look forward to decisions, consultations and community involvement on the vision for a new campus to commence.”

Cllr Gregah Roughead (Berwick West with Ord) added: “I supported and voted in favour of this amendment as our community has been demanding and waiting for a new high school for decades and it is paramount our education provision is excellent and fit for purpose.”

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During the meeting, he called for the provision of post-18 education to be considered as part of the plans given the current lack across north Northumberland.

Berwick not only delayed project

As previously reported, Berwick was one of three Northumberland school rebuilds, where the timescales have slipped, but the funding has been increased, with the other two being Amble and Seaton Valley.

In the case of Amble’s James Calvert Spence College (JCSC), following an initial promise in 2017 under the previous Labour administration, £16million was later agreed for the 2021-22 financial year.

The total allocation has now been increased to £20.3million, but only £250,000 for 2021-22, with the remainder split over the following two years – £7.3million in 2022-23 and £12.7million in 2023-24.

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In the case of the Seaton Valley Federation, last year’s capital programme indicated that £4.5million would be spent this year – which has not happened as the outline business case is still awaiting approval – followed by £16.9million in 2021-22.

The latest programme has upped the total investment to £31.6million, but just £230,000 for the coming year, followed by £15.9million and £15.5million in 2022-23 and 2023-24 respectively.

During the debate on Cllr Hill’s amendment, Labour group leader, Cllr Susan Dungworth wanted to extend this to move forward with the previous business cases for Amble and Seaton Valley.

However, this was later dropped after advice from the council’s finance director, Chris Hand, who revealed that even this would require major changes to the budget, prompting Cllr Dungworth to say she didn’t want to jeopardise the potential progress for children in Berwick.

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The same doesn’t apply for Berwick, as the £250,000 is essentially just being moved forward, while the additional £20million is proposed as a commitment for 2024-26, outside the three-year medium-term financial plan.

Cllr Les Bowman, the Labour member for Holywell, had earlier claimed that two Seaton Valley projects have already been pulled and that the Tories have delivered nothing in four years.

Cllr Renner-Thompson said that the budget has been increased because the governing bodies want the two middle schools to also be included on the Astley High School site, which ‘shows you the amount of work and consultation that’s been going into the project’.

But Cllr Dungworth said: “I know exactly why this project was pulled back in 2017 and then was pulled again last year, and those were not officer decisions, they were political decisions.”

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Meanwhile, Amble’s Labour member, Cllr Terry Clark, backed the amendment, noting that the JCSC scheme has been ‘pushed back and pushed back’, but Cllr Jeff Watson, the Conservative member for Amble West with Warkworth, did not, having said he is happy with the Amble timetable and that the headteacher accepts that the necessary public consultation has not yet been possible due to Covid-19.

After the meeting, Cllr Renner-Thompson said: “The council has invested or agreed to invest more than £101.2million in delivering the schools capital programme since October 2018. There have been 69 projects delivered in 63 schools across the whole of Northumberland, with projects ranging in value from £19,000 to £43million.

Northumberland County Council has been unique in investing in multi-million-pound school rebuilds across the county. Our commitment to building new schools cannot be brought into question. We promise and we deliver.”

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