A Northumberland MP has issued a renewed call for the county to be governed by separate urban and rural authorities in the ongoing row over the future of its civic base.
Hexham Conservative MP Guy Opperman has revived a debate which raged prior to the creation of a single unitary authority for Northumberland in 2009 in the continuing dispute over county council plans to move its base and decentralise services.
Yet Labour leaders on the council have accused him of an “attempt to divide the county for purely party political ends” and of being “prepared to turn down hundreds of jobs and decentralised services for his constituency.”
The county was once governed by Northumberland County Council alongside six district councils.
A referendum in 2004 saw residents voting for two unitary authorities for the county, along a rural urban split, rather than one.
Labour leaders at the county council then submitted a proposal for a single unitary authority.
However, the districts favoured the creation of two authorities, one for the urban areas of Wansbeck and Blyth Valley and one for the rural centres of Alnwick, Berwick, Tynedale and Castle Morpeth.
Yet the government in July 2007 chose the single authority option.
Mr Opperman has now proposed a public debate on the creation of two authorities for the rural and urban areas, amid his opposition to the county council’s plans to move its base from County Hall at Morpeth to Ashington and to create nine service hubs around Northumberland.
The MP suggested a new unitary authority covering the Hexham and Berwick parliamentary constituencies could take over services now provided by the county council.
He questioned why Ashington should benefit from a new £40m council base, a £20m sports centre and a £74m overhaul of the town centre, while his constituency is “losing out.”
> Possibly because Hexham is a much richer town than Ashington, which has a lot of catching up to do. Anyone who has visited both towns will know what I mean.
Mr Opperman furthermore claimed the recent abolition of free transport for students in post-16 education demonstrated the council’s current leadership “simply don’t have an interest in the issues in rural communities.”
The MP said: “Perhaps now that Labour are wanting dramatic change it is time to consider whether the current county council should be made into two unitary authorities, one urban and one rural.”
He added: “Hexham certainly has a lot more in common with Alnwick than it does with Ashington or Blyth. A rural Northumberland authority covering West and North Northumberland would give people back a council which worked for them, listened to their concerns and didn’t ignore them in favour of the urban South East.”
Responding, a spokesman for the Labour group on the county council said: “This is Guy Opperman’s latest political wheeze. “Last week he was arguing that Scotland and the UK are better together and this week he wants to split Northumberland up.
“Here are the figures, the county population is 47% in the South East, 27% in the West and 26% in the North.
“His half baked proposal would see more than 55% of the government’s grant disappear to the South East and would see the West having to make do with less than 25% of the current grant.
“His figures just don’t add up.
“This is his latest attempt to divide the county for purely party political ends.
“Residents will rightly note that he’s prepared to turn down hundreds of jobs and decentralised services for his constituency and yet he stays silent as his government slashes the county council budget by a third.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26 Sept 2014