Open letter fans flames over Portas

Mary Portas

Mary Portas

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Northumberland County Council has insisted that Berwick’s Portas Pilot is a “valuable project” that could have a “positive impact” on the town.

The assurance comes after it was revealed that the scheme had been described as “tedious” by Arch-employed consultant John Lord.

It has also been claimed that Arch, the council’s arms-length development company, “killed off” the town team against the wishes of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), which funds the project.

The ins and outs of Berwick’s troubled Portas pilot have been aired in a series of documents obtained by one of the original town team members through Freedom of Information requests.

Andrew Marshall, co-author of the winning bid, has released a series of emails, some relating to the transfer in management when NCC took the project from the town team, giving Berwick Town Council the lead role.

In one sent on October 6 last year, Mr Lord, Arch’s project director for Berwick, wrote to former county council chief executive Steve Stewart: “I am sorry to have to return to this tedious topic yet again: it’s getting beyond a joke, but we’re just going to have to grit our teeth a week or two longer.”

In another email sent on October 8, a DCLG employee wrote: “The town team is not in dire straights....Ultimately the key thing to achieve is to get the [Northumberland County Council] chief executive to step back from killing off the town team.”

In an open letter to the people of Berwick, sent out following a heated discussion at Berwick Town Council’s annual meeting last week, Mr Marshall said: “Central Government communications make it clear that they had no real issue with Berwick.”

He added: “When I read emails between John Lord, Arch and Steve Stewart openly referring to Berwick’s Portas Pilot as a ‘tedious’ ‘sideshow’ I am somewhat dismayed.”

A spokesperson for Northumberland County Council said: “The council does not view the Portas Pilot as a sideshow, but strongly believes that it is a valuable project which has the potential to have a very positive impact on Berwick.

“The arrangements for delivering the pilot are robust, allow the involvement of local people, and will result in positive change for Berwick.

“We are fully committed to supporting it either directly or through the council’s development company Arch.

“We remain appreciative of the efforts of everyone who played a role in the town team.”

A spokesperson for Berwick Town Council added: “The town council agreed to set up the Portas Management Group at full Council on 25 November 2013. Subsequently, its Terms of Reference were determined to be a return to the original focus of the winning Portas bid, which were the market and the town centre, concentrating on larger projects to achieve the greatest impact.”

The group currently has £130,000 at its disposal.

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