Protesters gathered at the ‘Ashington hole’ this afternoon to mark the anniversary of the site being ‘abandoned’ by the new Conservative leadership at Northumberland County Council.
Portland Park was due to become the new headquarters of the local authority under the previous Labour administration and work had started on site, but upon seizing power last May, the Conservatives immediately cancelled the planned move.
A consultation on the future of the town-centre site took place last autumn and suggestions included a new cinema, restaurants and retail, but a petition calling for a clear and concise plan for the site and an apology for Ashington residents now has more than 1,150 signatures.
Protest organiser Carol Brown said: “Ashington’s fighting for what was rightfully ours, they just whipped it out from under our feet and gave us no proper answers and we are still not getting answers. It’s just ifs, whys, buts.”
She, and other protesters, feel that the cinema and shops plan is not the answer and something like County Hall, which would have brought hundreds of jobs, is what’s needed in the town.
Echoing their calls, the area’s MP, Ian Lavery, who also spoke at the gathering, said: “We need jobs in Ashington, good well-paid jobs.
“We shouldn’t criticise people who maybe want other things here (like the proposed cinema), but we want to ensure we do the best for Ashington.
“I believe that in the not-too-distant future, the figures will show that it’s taken more money to withdraw from Ashington than it was to put County Hall here in the first place.”
But earlier this week, the council provided an update which said that a new investment strategy is being drawn up for the three development plots, with a revised outline planning application being progressed for a multi-screen cinema, restaurants and retail stores.
It added that a detailed study of what a cinema might look like is well advanced, while the first phase of the highways infrastructure for the development is now well under way.
These roads open up the Portland Park site and connect the Parkway roundabout to the Wetherspoon’s pub past Ashington Leisure Centre and Poundstretcher to Lintonville Terrace. They are due to be open late summer.
Council and Conservative leader Peter Jackson said: “We are progressing a number of options based on local feedback which will not just benefit Ashington, but the whole county.
“When the new administration took charge of the council, one of the first things we did was guarantee that work would continue at Portland Park to put in the critical road and other infrastructure and that’s exactly what is happening.
“We’re committed to making the scheme accessible for all our residents and following local feedback and national issues raised about shared spaces we need to look again at the pedestrian crossing facilities and we will soon be consulting on revised plans for this aspect of the work.”
The chairman of Arch, Coun Richard Wearmouth, added: “We always wanted to involve the community with the future of this site. We have consulted hundreds of residents who told us they wanted to see a cinema and additional retail.
“Detailed studies have proved that the option preferred by local people was practical and we are now actively pursuing that option to try to attract investors to the site.
“The revised proposals are being brought back as quickly as possible, recognising the market study stages are necessary to maximise the investment opportunity and statutory process we have to go through.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service