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Axe to swing on Walsall libraries and jobs, and council tax to rise as cost-cutting budget aims to save £25m

Walsall | News | Published:

Libraries will close, council tax will rise and jobs will go as Walsall Council looks to make £25 million in cuts and savings.

The leader of the council warned that its financial future was becoming 'dire' as he revealed plans to slash the budget in 2016/17.

The budget will include a 1.99 per cent hike in council tax – the absolute maximum the authority can impose without resorting to a referendum.

And the council is preparing to commit £250,000 of taxpayers' money to holding that referendum in 2017, to find out whether people are prepared to pay even more towards services.

Councillor Bird warned more job losses were on the cards and the council had not ruled out compulsory redundancies.

It comes amid warnings the authority will still be under pressure to sustain essential public services even after making cuts.

Seven out of 16 libraries and the mobile library service would shut, along with 13 jobs, as part of plans to save £328,854 next year and £159,058 the year after.

Councillor Bird said the council was looking at a model where libraries would be accessed by smart card entry, reducing the need for staff. Waste collection services are also expected to be affected.

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Care and safeguarding services alone will account for £10.2m of savings next year.

The authority has already consulted with residents over moving to fortnightly collections for non-recyclable rubbish.

Walsall Council leader Mike Bird described the situation as a 'perfect storm', and said he believed the referendum would allow the council to explain how services would be lost if people are not prepared to pay more.

The council tax hike will cost someone in the lowest value Band A home £21.22 a year more rising to an increase of £31.84 for Band D and higher for the larger value properties in the borough.

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Councillor Bird stressed that the remaining libraries would be no further than two miles apart. He added: "Budget-setting this year has been the toughest I can remember, in spite of that we should feel a sense of achievement that under difficult circumstances we have pulled together a workable budget for the borough. However, this is going to change moving forward into 2017-18.

"We are facing painful choices that none of us would ever want to make but there is simply no other alternative."

While Mike Bird admitted he knows people will say 'no' to an increase above the government's two per cent maximum next year, he is prepared to spend the money anyway asking people.

The Tory leader said it would highlight services at risk if people are unwilling to pay more to keep them.

The council is preparing to hold a referendum in 2017, estimated to cost a quarter of a million pounds, in a bid to address a shortfall in funding and help avoid future cuts to services.

Residents will be able to vote on whether they would be prepared to pay extra to keep services as the council looks to make savings of £85 million over the next four years.

At a press conference held yesterday at Walsall Council House, Councillor Bird said: "I have no confidence at all in winning the referendum.

"The purpose is to acquaint people with the dire situation this council faces.

"We would list services which would be at risk if the referendum said no."

He also revealed the council would be looking to make £25m in cuts in 2016/17.

Proposed cuts include job losses and the closure of seven out of 16 libraries as well as the mobile library service and a hike in council tax of 1.99 per cent in 2016/17.

There have already been 76 compulsory redundancies in 2014/15 and 29 in 2013/14.

But he said the authority would still be facing pressures to sustain services in the future.

Councillor Bird said: "The sums are simple. We have less money and an upward demand for essential services.

"We have looked at this dilemma from every angle to ensure we protect our most vulnerable residents the best way we can, but I'm afraid to say it's now looking like an impossible task.

"Whichever way we look at it, the future looks bleak. There is no way to balance our books without taking drastic steps.

"It doesn't matter how resourceful and innovative we are, yearly financial reductions of this magnitude will affect residents across the borough in one way or another."

He said a projected shortfall in funding for 2017/18 could only be addressed by taking a new and totally different approach.

"Bold steps are needed now and in the future to preserve services," Councillor Bird said. "With every alternative exhausted and all options explored, the only way forward now will be to ask residents of Walsall through a referendum to raise council tax above two per cent in 2017-2018.

"We wish there was another way, but all the choices are just incredibly hard now.

"Without taking bold steps, I really do fear for the future of council services right across the board."

Walsall Council's deputy leader Adrian Andrew added: "It's about drawing a line in the sand to say local Government cannot any longer stand these levels of cuts."

Willenhall North Councillor Adam Hicken said he agreed a referendum was the right way forward. He said: "I feel that with such important decisions being made over the next couple of years, it's only fair that local people have a say on how these decisions are made.

"The best way for this to be achieved is a referendum so the people of Walsall can decide on how much they are willing to pay and what services they want to keep."

The proposals will go before full council in February 2016 when they will approve the final budget. To get the budget passed will likely require the Conservatives to be supported by a combination of three UKIP and two independent councillors. Labour has the largest number of seats, but not enough for a majority and there are two Liberal Democrats.

The council is controlled by a minority administration of Conservatives.

The Tories took back control earlier this year after the council was run by Labour for less than a year.

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