Furious Wearside MPs today hit out after the Government said it is to delay a decision over plans to redevelop Sunderland’s crumbling court building by a year.
Ministry of Justice (MoJ) chiefs said in December that the future of the 109-year-old site would become clearer by the end of March.
Courts and Justice Minister Sir Oliver Heald made the pledge during a meeting with MPs Bridget Phillipson and Julie Elliott.
Both MPs have been campaigning on the issue since Houghton Magistrates Court was closed in 2011 on the understanding that a new modern courts complex was to be built in Sunderland.
Although £2million of taxpayer money has been spent buying land and drawing up plans for a new Sunderland Centre for Justice at Farringdon Row, to date no decision has yet been taken on the rebuild.
Both MPs have received a letter from Sir Oliver in which he confessed that “no decisions have been made” on how best to reform the site.
Instead, the MoJ has extended the “Put Option” on the land it owns for a further 12 months to March 2018, thereby potentially delaying any decision for another year.
The minister also revealed that HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is in early discussion with Sunderland City Council and their partners Siglion Developments to explore the potential for a new Public Sector Hub at Keel Square.
Ms Phillipson and Ms Elliott have reacted with dismay to the announcement, saying that the Government “can’t even be trusted to keep a simple timetable commitment”.
Speaking after receiving Sir Oliver’s letter, Ms Phillipson said: “I am deeply disappointed that the Government has yet again delayed a decision on a new Sunderland Centre for Justice.
“When Julie and I met with the Courts Minister late last year, he gave us a firm commitment that his department was actively working on this issue and would have a clear direction by the end of March 2017.
“Instead we were told at the last possible minute that the decision has been kicked into the long grass once more.
“This is disgraceful but not surprising. After all, ministers have been dodging and delaying this decision for the last six years.
“The Government is clearly hoping that we will just go away and forget about this issue, which is why Julie and I will now be working harder than ever to make sure the city gets the new courts complex that we so desperately need.
“It’s simply not fair that crime victims and court staff in Sunderland are forced to use court facilities that are no longer fit for purpose.
“Unfortunately, the Government has let them down again.”
Ms Elliott said: “I know that many people in Sunderland will be really angry to hear about this latest delay to the construction of a modern courts facility in the city.
“It’s hardly a surprise that so many people are losing faith in politics when the Government can’t even be trusted to keep a simple timetable commitment.
“Last November, Bridget and I were promised a decision on the rebuild by the end of March 2017.
“Yet after chasing the courts minister for an update over the last couple of weeks, we were told on deadline day that there would be another 12-month delay.
“This is simply not good enough.
“Our 109-year old magistrates’ court is no longer fit for purpose; we need a new Centre for Justice as soon as possible.
“In the coming weeks and months, Bridget and I will keep fighting for the Government to make a decision as soon as possible.”
In his letter to both MPs, Sir Oliver wrote: “Work continues on the exploration of how we can best reform the court estate in Sunderland.
“At this time it remains the position that no decisions have been made.
“I can however confirm that we have extended the Put Option on the land Farringdon Row for a further 12 months to March 2018, which keeps all options option for HMCTS.
“Furthermore, HMCTS is engaging in early discussion with Sunderland City Council and their partners Siglion Developments to explore the potential for a new public sector hub at Keel Square.
“I trust this provides some reassurance that we remain committed to providing continued access to court and tribunal hearings in Sunderland, as part of the ongoing review of the operational estate to make sure it aligns with the delivery of reformed court and tribunal services.”