Keel Row: 'Cloak and dagger' purchase of Blyth shopping centre happened without knowledge of opposition councillors

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Opposition councillors were not informed of Northumberland County Council’s decision to acquire Keel Row Shopping Centre prior to the news being made public, it has emerged.

The council announced on Wednesday, July 19 that a deal had been struck to purchase the Blyth centre, which has been struggling to fill a number of vacant units, from Northumberland Estates and redevelop the site.

Northumberland Labour leader, Cllr Scott Dickinson, says the decision was made without any cross-party discussion and that many councillors found out about the deal, the value of which has not yet been revealed, through the media.

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He said: “I am not against the purchase if that is what is needed to improve the prospects of the town in the long run and I am pleased the county council shared their decision with the town council.

Less than half the units in Keel Row are currently occupied. (Photo from archive)Less than half the units in Keel Row are currently occupied. (Photo from archive)
Less than half the units in Keel Row are currently occupied. (Photo from archive)

“But to ignore the other county councillors by having no risk appraisal panel, no full council, and no cross-party discussion on the decision-making is not acceptable.

“They were not even informed before the news went public.”

Cllr Dickinson has also accused the council administration of “cloak and dagger decision making with public funds.”

He says there should have been debate prior to the purchase, pointing to the cross-party panel discussions before the 2016 purchase of Manor Walks in Cramlington as an example of good practice.

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He said: “Blyth residents who have made contact are horrified by this gamble with their cash.

“This comes at a time when the county council has admitted it cannot deliver on its social services mandate and expects parish and town councils to foot most of the bill to keep streets clean and tidy and your grass cut, while charging householders one of the highest rates of council tax in the UK.

People are right to ask if these Conservative councillors have lost the plot or are they simply playing the lottery with local people's lives.”

Northumberland Conservatives has refuted these claims, branding the Labour leader’s comments “incredibly negative and inaccurate”.

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A spokesperson said: “The comments are disingenuous to the many professionals who have worked tirelessly bringing together the plans for a modern Blyth along with such huge investment.

“This is not the buying of a failing shopping centre, this is creating a very bright future for one of our major towns.

“We will demolish the building, which is in a sad state and was going to close, and build a state of the art learning centre to go with all the other things we are doing in the town.

“The prospect of many employment opportunities is to be applauded. The local businesses are receiving expert one-to-one support.”

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The centre will close in early 2024, and funding for the site’s redevelopment will come from the existing £90million Energising Blyth fund.

Early proposals for the site’s new use include the Energy Central Institute higher education and research facility and a hotel.

Michael O’Driscoll, commercial property investment director at Northumberland Estates, said: “The pandemic was incredibly tough for high street businesses and, sadly, the Keel Row is no longer a viable commercial venture.

“We have been trading at a loss for a considerable period which is unsustainable. The tenants have been made aware of the sale and the proposed plans.”