The row over the Portland Park site, which was due to become the new headquarters of the local authority under the previous Labour administration before the Tories seized power at the last election and scrapped the plans, is escalating.
Labour councillors in the town have claimed the political leadership at the council is not delivering what the people want. A consultation on the future of the town-centre site took place last autumn and suggestions included a new cinema, restaurants and retail.
A petition calling for urgent action on what has been dubbed the Ashington Hole has gathered more than 1,100 signatures and now campaigners are arranging a mass protest at the site on Friday, May 4, at 2pm.
They believe it is unacceptable that building works have not started at Portland Park and an apology – as well as a ‘clear and detailed update’ – were sought in a letter to council leader Peter Jackson.
Labour councillors have highlighted that the 550 or so people who responded to the consultation is only half the number who have signed the petition.
Meanwhile, Coun Jackson visited the town last week to underline the commitment to developing the site and emphasising that the proposals were being drawn up in consultation with local people.
Labour’s Coun Jim Lang said: “Although a multiplex cinema would be a welcome addition to Ashington, operators tend only to locate where there are quality national food and beverage investments.
“Bargain-basement retailers are not the solution to the mess the Tory council has created in Ashington.
Quality job creation, that then convinces quality retailers and the like to invest in Ashington, is the missing ingredient to successful long-term regeneration.”
Labour is also claiming that council jobs are set to be moved out of the town’s Wansbeck Square to Cramlington, although a council spokesman said that while Northumberland and Newcastle councils are working to develop a joint transactional service, ‘no decision has been taken with regard to accommodation at this point’.
Coun Lynne Grimshaw, the Labour representative for Bothal, said: “Peter Jackson has been forced to make a statement about his administration’s dereliction of duty in Ashington town centre because of pressure from residents.
“Sadly, rather than offer a vision of real regeneration, he has resorted to spreading the mistruths that the Conservatives peddled prior to the election. The so-called plans outlined are in direct contradiction to the Tory chairman of Arch who said they would no longer invest in retail.
“Relocating the town centre a few hundred yards north will kill off Station Road and will do nothing to provide the good-quality jobs that are needed to underpin the businesses and services that we all as residents want to see.”
Responding to the criticism, Coun Jackson said: “We have been working with residents on some very ambitious and exciting plans for Ashington and it is a great shame that their locally-elected representatives cannot work in partnership to bring these plans to fruition.”
“It is also a shame that they have not seen fit to communicate with their own residents on this major project.
“In the county elections of last May, residents resoundingly rejected Labour’s £80million project which was designed to move an existing 900 jobs a few miles from one town to another, potentially causing chaos in Ashington itself. It is now time to move on and stop talking down the area.
“I am asking them to join with us in the variety of plans which we have to bring this whole area into the modern world creating hundreds of new jobs and forming a platform for an exciting future. The public have really engaged with our consultation and are helping us to shape the plans.
“Instead of issuing misleading statements it would be good to hear something positive from local councillors. Our plans will create real regeneration and new jobs to Ashington and we aim to bring quality retailers to the area.”