Row erupts over '˜lost'£19m funds

A political row has broken out over £19million funding which had been earmarked for Berwick.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 19 March, 2018, 07:03
The Swan Centre in Berwick.

Labour has accused Berwick’s county councillors of voting to cut funds earmarked for the Swan Centre for Leisure when they approved Northumberland County Council’s budget.

However, Coun Georgina Hill, Independent member for Berwick East, has hit back at what she calls ‘fake news’ reports on a Northumberland Labour Party blog site.

“It is one thing having a bit of ‘spin’ and massaging the figures but another just completely making things up,” she said.

Labour has raised questions about a funding package granted to Northumbria Healthcare NHS Trust from the council in 2014 which was said to be worth in the region of £30million.

The then Labour administration at County Hall struck a ground-breaking deal with the NHS to help alleviate pressures in the health service by loaning the Trust cash to pay for the new hospital at Cramlington and a new replacement hospital for Berwick Infirmary.

Now Labour is asking questions about the Conservative led administration/NHS decision to merge the new hospital with a leisure facility and what that will mean for the loan from the council which was specifically set up for a state-of-the-art new hospital for Berwick.

A Labour spokesman said: “The original deal was a win-win for all concerned with residents seeing more cash available for frontline services but the new proposed hybrid centre in Berwick looks like it will cost significantly less than the loan from the authority and the capital sum to replace the Swan Centre.

“Under Labour plans, we would have seen a new hospital and a new leisure centre in an investment package for Berwick worth £46million but it’s clear that Peter Jackson’s Northumberland Conservatives have slashed around £19million from that budget.

“We’re keen to know what the Tory plans are and if they’re planning to spend that £19million saving in Berwick, what it will mean for residents? If it’s just a cut then Coun Jackson needs to explain to residents why he wants to cut £19million from Berwick’s budget, the ex-Tory councillor for Berwick East should explain why she’s done a U-turn on a fair deal for Berwick and has Coun Jackson approved the council NHS loan changes?”

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Coun Hill said: “During their term in office, the previous Labour administration did not spend one penny on the Swan Centre and then, like some sort of hollow election bribe, said they were about to build a new leisure centre in Berwick but it was found there was no business plan or any other proper plans drawn up.

“A clear commitment has now been made over the new joint venture with Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust for a new leisure centre and healthcare facility in Berwick and there is currently in excess of £30million allocated for this. As residents will have seen, we are at the public engagement stage of this.”

Coun Hill, audit committee chairman, added: “The finances inherited from the previous Labour administration are, frankly, a mess. Northumberland County Council and the taxpayer are owed around £250million by Arch. The previous valuations of assets cannot be considered to be safe so the financial risk we are now exposed to is significant.”

Coun Hill, who admitted that she voted for the Conservative-led administration’s budget ‘with some reluctance’ explained: “I would, of course, have liked to have seen no council tax increase and more for Berwick but you need to be realistic and consider the best position to fight your corner from now and in future years.”

During the budget debate last month Coun Hill said that in future there needed to be a much fairer split of money in the capital programme across the 67 electoral divisions in Northumberland, especially for Berwick which has suffered decades of neglect.

She pointed out that Ponteland had received over £50million for schools and other projects but acknowledged that this was something which had been signed off under Labour.

She also revealed that she had been given assurances from key figures at County Hall that Berwick’s wider regeneration needs are understood and future investment will be supported.

Coun Jackson, in reply to Coun Hill’s points, said that Berwick stands to benefit significantly from the Borderlands initiative. He also gave a public commitment to back the new Berwick Regeneration Commission and support the delivery of the regeneration programme and projects it is drawing up.

The county council has also agreed to fund a project manager to assist the work of the Berwick Regeneration Commission.