Tempers flared as the alleged mismanagement of Berwick’s £200,000 Portas prize came under the spotlight again at a public meeting.
Andrew Marshall, co-author of the winning bid, said last September’s decision to relieve the town team of its Portas role had been ‘a disgrace’.
He told Berwick Town Council’s annual meeting that there was no evidence to back up claims of poor governance which lay behind the decision taken by Northumberland County Council and Arch.
He went on to claim that the Department for Communities and Local Government had been misled about the extent of problems with Berwick’s Portas pilot.
Mr Marshall, who was an original member of the town team but had resigned by the time its Portas powers were removed, said: “Berwick is the only Portas pilot that has been shut down by its local authority and what is worse is that Arch and the county council actually misled central government to say they were assessing the Berwick options when in fact they had already decided to shut it down.
“The DCLG, whose money this was, were horrified because they were not consulted at all.
“Berwick Town Council should have checked the facts. It was only too willing to accept the view of John Lord at Arch. There was a list of Portas pilots in danger but the DCLG did not have a problem with Berwick.”
At the time, county council chief executive Steve Stewart said the decision was the result of a review undertaken to look at ways to speed up delivery of activities within the pilot scheme and ensure the £200,000 budget was utilised as quickly as possible to benefit the town.
Arch then took over the Portas fund on an interim basis and gave around £70,000 to three projects which had been identified by the tourism forum.
“There has been a complete lack of accountability and local democracy with Portas,” said Mr Marshall. “There is an issue with governance and the fact that this is public money.
“The Portas money was designed to help regenerate the town centre but funds have been given to promote this summer’s Lowry exhibition, a community gardens project and to pay for advertising with Northumberland Tourism - of which Arch and the county council are board members.”
A series of angry exchanges followed, most notably between Mr Marshall and Councillor John Robertson as he attempted to respond on behalf of the town council which has now taken over the Portas management.
Coun Robertson said: “It was a fait accompli by the county council and Arch. Taking it on ourselves was the only way we could see the continuation of the project.”
He felt the £100,000 Portas prize, match funded by the county council, had been “the worst thing that has ever happened to this town.”
“It’s caused so much indecision when, in reality, that amount of money can only do so much. We just have to pick up the pieces and the new Portas management group will try to create a better town centre environment.”
Coun Phil Elliot added: We have to put Portas behind us and move forward. We are picking the pieces up because of the failure of the town team.”
But Mr Marshall countered: “It shouldn’t be about picking up the pieces. The most damaging thing of all of this is that there is now a public perception in Berwick that the Portas pilot has been a failure. That is only the viewpoint of the county council and certain people in Berwick, it’s not the view of the DCLG.”