AN alternative site in Darlington is likely to be considered for 480 threatened civil service jobs, in a boost to the campaign to prevent a transfer to Newcastle.
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Answering a Commons debate, education minister Liz Truss said her department's permanent secretary was willing to hold face-to-face talks, ahead of drawing up a shortlist next month.
Ms Truss agreed there was a "persuasive case" for retaining the jobs in Darlington, when the current rundown site - at Mowden Hall - closes in March next year.
And she told MPs: "I hope that the Darlington working group will be able to field a proposal for inclusion among the options to be considered."
Two potential alternative sites in Darlington have been identified; Northgate House, in the town centre, and Lingfield Point, on the eastern edge of the town.
Meanwhile, the debate heard evidence that the cost to Darlington's economy - should the jobs be moved to Newcastle, as suggested - could reach £21m a year.
Jenny Chapman, Labour MP for Darlington, said the research by the Tees Valley Unlimited (TVU) local enterprise partnership suggested 70 per cent of that sum was currently spent in the local economy.
Describing the controversy as a "critical decision for our town", Ms Chapman said: "A huge concern is the impact on the local economy of the loss of such a large number of highly skilled jobs."
The MP also urged the minister to recognise how difficult it would be for Mowden Hall staff to travel to Newcastle, which was "40 miles north of Darlington, along a busy stretch of motorway".
She warned: "Those travel times would make family friendly working impossible. Parents would find it harder to fit their hours around existing child care arrangements, which would increase their costs dramatically."
The worrying alternative was that a "highly prized" workforce would be broken up, Ms Chapman said, adding: "Schools and children's services departments across the country rely on those skills. They are not easily, quickly or cheaply replaceable."
Some senior people among the 480 department for education (DfE) staff were already considering quitting, because of the uncertainty.
Ms Chapman also told the minister that The Northern Echo's 'Save Our Jobs'
petition has already attracted more than 1,000 signatures, saying: "The task of persuading the department to stay in Darlington is a whole-town effort."
In reply, Ms Truss pledged the "impact on local employment and the area's economy" of moving the jobs from Darlington would be taken into account - as would the higher travel costs of a move to Newcastle.
The minister set out the criteria for a new site; ideally an existing government property, good transport connections, good quality facilities and available "within reasonable time scales".
And she praised Ms Chapman's campaign, saying: "Her input has already been extremely valuable and her concerns are being listened to in the department."
However, Ms Truss was unable to comment on the future of Mowden Hall staff working for the ministry of justice and the department for business, or 500 employees of Capita, servicing a DfE contract.
One factor that could push the case for Lingfield Point is the government's wish to bring together public-sector jobs in a single 'hub'.
The site is already home to borough council staff, the NHS, the Student Loans Company and armed forces' institutes and is close to the base of the Independent Safeguarding Authority.
In March 2011, the Dfe discussed a move to Lingfield Point, but decided, in Ms Chapman's words yesterday, "at least for the time being, to stay put at the deteriorating Mowden Hall".
Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington Borough Council, said: “I am very pleased with the minister’s comments, it seems clear the lobbying and the petition are having the desired effect.
“But now is not the time to rest on our laurels, we need to keep pushing and get as many signatures on the petition as we can.
“More than 900 people have signed it and I would hope that we can get over the thousand mark very soon.
"The latest developments fit in with everything we have been hearing and seeing in our meetings so far – that we are being taken seriously.
“It is a very strong bid, obviously it has got to go through due process, but we are increasingly being seen as the front-runner and we have got to maintain that position.”