Berwick’s town team has been left shocked and bewildered by a decision to remove it from its lead role in the £200,000 Portas project.
Northumberland County Council has invited Berwick Town Council to take over as leader of the project after expressing concerns that the money for town centre improvements was not being spent fast enough.
The invite has been taken up by the town council, but the Portas team have been left incredulous at the news and are taking advice from the DCLG on what action to take.
“This has come out of the blue,” said Chris Hardie, acting town team chairman. “There was no criteria on how we spent the money and then all of a sudden we got an email from the chief executive at Northumberland County Council telling us, firstly that we were under review, and then on Friday that the Portas funding was being withdrawn from the town team because we had not spent the money quickly enough.”
The town team has so far spent just £50,000 – a quarter of its funding – on the restoration of boat trips, the creation of pop-up shop Serendipity, improvements to the market and the re-establishment of coach parking on Walkergate.
“We feel we’re being criticised for having achieved these things without spending lots of money,” said Mr Hardie. “Spending money is easy, it’s getting results in the long term that’s important.”
He also revealed that, at a review meeting in June with John Lord of Arch, the town team had been left “in no doubt” that they should not consider any other project until the market and pop-up shops were completed and that future planning should re-start in the autumn.
However, Steve Stewart, county council chief executive, explained the decision was the result of a review undertaken to look at ways to speed up delivery of activities and initiatives within the pilot scheme and ensure the £200,000 budget was utilised as quickly as possible to benefit the town.
Mr Stewart said: “There are real achievements that the Berwick town team has delivered including the pop-up shop in Marygate, and the town council will want to see this and other successful projects continue. We’d like to thank the town team for the enthusiasm they have put into this so far and hope they’ll continue to be involved.
“Nonetheless, the town council will be able to bring a greater level of capacity and accountability to the Portas pilot project which will help ensure that other activities can be progressed more swiftly.”
Berwick Town Council will form a representative group to carry out its new role, giving business and community leaders a bigger say in decision making.
They have expressed appreciation to the town team and the projects they have delivered which give it a good platform to build on.
But the town team maintain they still have a useful role to play.
Mr Hardie said: “We feel the town team board in its present form is well equipped and in a good position to help make Berwick town centre a more vibrant economically successful town centre working with all the various groups already operating within the town.
“We are consulting with the DECLG – a member of who was in Berwick only two weeks ago and was very impressed with our achievements. This person was staggered at the news of last Friday’s email from the county council.
“The town team board have a meeting scheduled for this Friday at which we will review last Friday’s letter and decide the future role that we can play.”
Councillor John Robertson said the apparent breakdown in communication between leaders of Arch and the county council was “a serious concern for the town”.