'State of the Area' roadshow to set out Northumberland County Council's work

County Hall in Morpeth.County Hall in Morpeth.
County Hall in Morpeth.
Northumberland County Council’s Conservative administration is reflecting on what it has done so far and what it still wants to do at the five local area meetings this month.

Taking the annual State of the Area update on the road, lead councillors have been outlining their priorities and what they have been doing since they took over at County Hall in May 2017.

Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, also briefly set out some of the context for the coming year’s budget this week.

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As previously reported, just under £10million of cuts have been identified against a backdrop of increasing demand for services, particularly adult and children’s social care.

He also indicated that council tax is set to rise by 3.99% in 2020-21, the maximum allowed without a referendum, made up of a 1.99% general increase and an extra 2% ring-fenced for adult social care, suggesting that most local authorities would be going down this route.

The Tories won the most number of seats in the 2017 elections, albeit falling one short of an overall majority, and have been keen to emphasise their progress against their manifesto pledges.

They promised to halt the move of County Hall from Ashington to Morpeth, get rid of Arch, bring back free transport for post-16 students and revise the core strategy – all of which have taken place.

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They also said they would spend £100million on the county’s roads and create local area councils to let local people make local decisions.

Coun Oliver claimed that the council was well on the way to meeting this spending commitment, with another £15million in the budget for next year.

He also admitted that while allowing the local area councils to make decisions on planning applications had worked, there needed to be more engagement and extra responsibilities for them on other issues.

Council leader Peter Jackson mentioned the likes of job creation, inward investment through the North of Tyne Combined Authority and Borderlands partnership, funding for new schools and special educational needs, new social housing and the climate emergency as areas of ongoing focus.

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At the Labour-dominated Ashington and Blyth Local Area Council on January 15, there were some specific concerns raised, but no widespread criticism of the programme being laid out by council leader Peter Jackson.

On a local level, he highlighted the cinema and retail development at Portland Park in Ashington, which recently received planning permission; the investment for Blyth town centre, pledging that the council would go over and above the funding secured from central government; and the ongoing development of Energy Central, on the former Blyth power station site – described by Coun Jackson as ‘a whole new resurrection of the local economy’.

Coun Brian Gallacher called for more dialogue between the administration and local councillors, for example, over the Portland Park development.

He also said that partnerships between the county and town councils, which had been praised by Coun Jackson, were not about extending services but to keep them up.

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“We just want our communities to be great and they can be so long as we can work together to improve,” he added.

Coun Deirdre Campbell said: “It’s the smaller things that annoy members of the public. Usually it takes so long to get the smaller things dealt with.”

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service earlier in the week, Coun Oliver had described the Northumberland Line project, to restore passenger rail services between the south-east of the county and Newcastle, as ‘the most transformative thing we will have done’.

When it was put to Coun Oliver that rather than pledges, residents like to see spades in the ground, he replied: “That’s going to be happening all over the county.

“It does take time so a lot of things are now reaching the delivery stage.”