Council leader welcomes County Hall audit

The leader of Northumberland County Council has welcomed an independent audit of plans to relocate the council's Headquarters.

Wednesday, 16th March 2016, 4:42 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th March 2016, 4:43 pm
County Hall, Morpeth, headquarters for Northumberland County Council.

Grant Davey particularly welcomed the fact that the detailed review confirmed the council acted properly, the scheme provided value for money and in some cases the council was underestimating the benefits of a move to Ashington – with the overall economic benefit to the north east being as high as £93million, as opposed to the £89million currently being quoted by the authority.

A detailed review looking at the evidence supporting papers presented by Council in order to debate the proposed move from Morpeth to Ashington – and including consideration of specific concerns raised by opposition councillors has been completed by the council’s auditors – Ernst and Young.

Auditors considered the evidence in the context of the following requirement:

“In all significant respects, the audited body had proper arrangements to ensure it took properly informed decisions and deployed resources to achieve planned and sustainable outcomes for taxpayers and local people”

In its final report they said they were ‘satisfied’ that there were no significant matters to report in the context of the above requirement.

The review looked closely at the November 2015 report to Cabinet and although it found a small number of “minor discrepancies”, there was nothing significant in the context of the above requirement.

The review also looked closely at 11 specific concerns raised by opposition councillors and provided a response on each point.

These include addressing opposition claims of “unjustified” repair costs and the lack of a structural survey. Auditors obtained correspondence from GVA confirming GVA had carried out such a survey in 2007 and carried out a further inspection in 2015.

The review also dismissed allegations the contract would take place “behind closed doors” as the auditors had received confirmation from officers that the contract for the building would go through the full OJEU process – a publication in which all tenders from the public sector which are valued above a certain financial threshold, must be published

Councillor Davey said: “I’m pleased that the auditors have confirmed the decisions behind the proposed move were carried out correctly and the scheme will also provide value for money for local people.

“It’s also good to have independent scrutiny when it finds we actually underestimated the potential benefit of the move to the wider region.

“We always fully refuted any suggestions that the County Hall decision was taken in anything other than an open and transparent manner and in full accordance with legislation.

“In order to provide additional assurance we also agreed to include the opposition’s concerns about the evidence and information basis on which the decision itself was taken, in line with local government law.

“While we didn’t have any concerns about the efficiency or appropriateness of the decision taken by Cabinet, this independent review has confirmed this.

“It’s disappointing some opposition councillors chose to dismiss the auditors’ findings even before the report was complete and I hope the leader of the Conservatives will now apologise to the public for misleading them on this matter.

“It would appear that Cllr Jackson is clutching at straws to justify his numerous inaccurate claims and to hide the fact his concerns have not been upheld by an independent audit.

“The review did make a number of recommendations which we will now take forward but I hope we can now draw a line under this issue and move forward together for the benefit of everyone in Northumberland.”

The new smaller more cost efficient headquarters, which is financed on an invest to save basis, is set to save the council £630,000 each year or £16million over the next 25 years. It will also enable more council staff to be based in towns across the county in one-stop shops, improving services for residents.

The move to a new HQ is only a part of a much wider regeneration strategy, with the authority ensuring it does all it can to drive and encourage growth in all market towns.

The programme is ultimately aimed at generating around £369million into the regional economy while protecting frontline services, transforming our town centres, attracting new jobs and accelerating the development of new infrastructure and quality housing.

The report will be discussed by the council’s audit committee on March 23.