Row erupts over the audit for county HQ relocation proposals

Peter Jackson, Conservative group leader.
Peter Jackson, Conservative group leader.

A fresh war of words has broken out between political groups with decision day on plans to move the county council’s headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington less than a week away.

An external audit will be carried out by Ernst and Young after Conservative group leader Peter Jackson wrote to the authority’s chief executive, Steve Mason.

But after receiving the terms of reference, he believes it is far too limited and the public is likely to view it as a whitewash. He also claims that 99 per cent of Northumberland residents view the project as ‘unnecessary and unjustified’.

The Labour administration has hit back, saying he is attacking the integrity of external auditors that have been appointed by the Conservative Government to oversee the county council’s finances and his group should come up with its own proposal for dealing with the costs of the existing County Hall in Loansdean.

The councillors in charge say the re-location to Ashington would cost less in the long-term than having to refurbish the current building up to modern standards, but political opponents are sceptical about the costs cited for these works because a proper structural survey of the building has not been carried out.

The move will be confirmed if the funding allocation for it is approved as part of the council’s vote on the 2016/17 budget on Wednesday afternoon. If it gets the green light, construction could start in August, with staff moving in by September 2018. The administration says the project will help it to allocate more services and staff to town centres in Northumberland’s market towns.

An online petition against the move, set up by Ponteland resident David Greenwell, has more than 1,000 signatures. It will be sent to the Local Government Ombudsman.