Leisure centres, the Grand Theatre and the Civic Halls have been warned of further cuts to their grants as 1,000 council jobs face the axe.
In a candid interview with the Express & Star Councillor Roger Lawrence, leader of Wolverhampton City Council, said the authority would focus on services that were ‘absolutely essential’ as it grapples with an £89 million black hole in funding over the next five years.
Staff were gathered together at a series of meetings at Wolverhampton Civic Hall yesterday where they were given the news of the job cuts looming over the next 18 months. It has not yet been decided where the axe will fall, but staff were warned that council services that charge fees will have to at least break even so the authority can reduce its subsidies and use the money to care for the most vulnerable people.
Proposals have been put forward for Wolverhampton City Council to scrap the £500,000 a year subsidy currently given to the Civic Halls while the Grand Theatre is also due to lose £100,000 in grants over the next four years.
However, those cuts may need to be deeper in order for the council to balance its books. Labour leader Councillor Lawrence said: “We are going to have to look at our trading services and make sure they break even. The Civic Halls and Grand Theatre are going to have to have their subsidies reduced further than they have been already.
“We’re not expecting that to be overnight. Leisure centres equally have to look towards breaking even.”
Both the Civic Halls and the Grand Theatre are expected to receive some one-off funding to help them cope with the cut.
Councillor Lawrence warned that council services would not be able to continue as they are.
“It’s about still getting some services out there. The jaws between income and expenditure are getting wider. We need to start moving to bring down our costs as rapidly as possible. It’s going to take a significant period of time to restructure.
“We haven’t had huge success in sharing services with our neighbours the past two to three years. We were close to getting a combined consumer protection service at one stage and it fell through. I’ve argued we should share legal services. It does not just have to be between Black Country boroughs. We could share with Telford, Staffordshire or Birmingham. We’re doing joint audits with Sandwell.”
Councillor Lawrence attended one of the briefings at the Civic Hall to hear chief executive Simon Warren outline the job cuts.
He said: “There was a lot of shock and anger and I understand that. When the Labour group met there were tears of frustration. No-one wants to be where we are.
“We have to focus on things that are absolutely essential – safeguarding children, safeguarding adults.
“Our budget for looked after children is up from £22m to £27m. The numbers in our care have risen from the high 400s to the high 600s. We’re recruiting social workers over a two year period to deal with that. I just wish all big cities could have a week where we don’t clean the streets, we shut the theatres and the parks. Because that’s what it’s going to look like in four or five years unless we are very lucky in the way we manage things.”
As a result of the job cut, trade union Unison is planning to ask its members if they want a ballot for potential strike action.
Councillor Lawrence said he would be meeting with representatives.
“I’m prepared to join them in some form of demonstration”, he said. “It won’t help the people of Wolverhampton if they go on strike, but it would bring home to people the scale of what’s being done to public services.” Opposition Tory councillor Wendy Thompson, the party’s finance spokesman, said these were difficult times for the city.
“It is difficult when any member of the family loses their job,” she said. “This is a very difficult time period for them all. I very much hope people will be able to get new jobs or take up opportunities for training or education. I also hope there will be a lot of advice available for people.”
She added questions should be asked about where money was being spent and queried the planned £15million refurbishment of the Civic Centre, which is intended to reduce the number of council premises from 13 to two.
“It brings into question other spending that goes on within the council. It has to.”