War of words over County Hall cost claims

County Hall at Morpeth.
County Hall at Morpeth.

Lies, damned lies and statistics – a significant portion of last week’s full meeting of Northumberland County Council was taken up by rows between political opponents.

While members were due to be signing off the minutes of previous meetings, it descended into a number of arguments about misleading or inaccurate figures, particularly in relation to the relative costs of the aborted move of the council HQ to Ashington versus the refurbishment of County Hall in Morpeth.

Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate resources, said: “At the last council meeting, we talked about some inaccurate figures that were floating around and I made an appeal to try to have political debate on accurate information.

“I note looking around online that there are various figures (for the refurbishment) being put out by various Labour Facebook pages – we’ve seen £17million, £26million, £29million, £30million, £38million and, most recently, an astonishing £57million. That’s clearly not true.”

Coun Scott Dickinson, the Labour group chairman hit back, saying: “Northumberland Conservatives repeatedly in all material promoted £80million (for the new council HQ in Ashington) and that was a lie. It was proved to be a lie in this chamber by officers of the council.”

Another row started when Coun Dickinson asked for a ‘clarification’: “The leader said not long ago that he inherited a strong and stable organisation that gave him time to review everything.

“Now he’s saying that wasn’t the case – was he lying then or is he lying now?”

Coun Peter Jackson responded: “The people who were lying was the previous Labour administration, because I have tried to explain it several times, but for those who don’t want to hear, they don’t hear the truth.

“I made that statement in the first week we were here, because I actually believed this council had stable finances at the time and then section after section, officer after officer in this council came to me as leader and said, I just can’t deliver these budgets.”

Having looked at it ‘forensically’, he added, “I realised to my horror that you’d left us with a £65million black hole to fill, so I’m afraid you have to take real responsibility as the Labour group for the absolute mess you’ve left this county in.”

Earlier in the meeting, Coun Anne Dale, an independent and former chairman of the audit committee, said that this £65million figure for the deficit needed to be clarified as the previous figure of £30million related to a different time period, but this was rejected by the Conservative administration as ‘a lack of understanding’.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service