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Seven Walsall libraries saved...for now

Walsall | News | Published:

Seven closure-threatened libraries across the Walsall borough were given a stay of execution.

A budget proposal put forward by the ruling Conservatives was dramatically overthrown by Labour and Liberal Democrats members.

Councillors from the two political parties joined forces to force through an alternative budget for the financial year from April.

It happened at a meeting which saw councillors from all political parties debate the proposed cuts at length and hold a two-hour adjournment as they attempted to strike a new deal.

The Labour and Liberal Democrat budget did not include the proposed closures of Beechdale, Blakenhall, New Invention, Rushall, South Walsall, Walsall Wood and Pleck libraries.

But council tax will still rise by 3.99 per cent, with £29 million of savings needed for the year.

The proposed budget will be considered again for a final decision after the local council elections in May – despite the financial year starting in April.

Labour leader Councillor Sean Coughlan, speaking during the meeting, said: "Under our proposals we will not be closing any libraries.

"We seem to continue cutting the voluntary sector, but we will not cut the grant supplied to the Citizens Advice Bureau.

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"Three years ago I set up a working group to look at the impact of the cuts and we had an all-party agreement it would be wrong to cut CAB funding. It's a very supported and respected group.

"We also want to double the amount of money available to maintain day services, which will allow them to transform services their community depends on."

The new Labour and Liberal Democrat budget proposed withdrawing cuts in the region of £150,000 to street cleaning services and £211,651 to seven libraries earmarked with closure.

The plans will also see Aldridge, Bloxwich, Brownhills and Willenhall libraries becoming Open Plus hubs with extended opening times.

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The parties also looked at preventing £100,000 of cuts to area panels, which were set up to give residents the chance to ask councillors questions. The alternative budget looked at saving £260,000 and £50,000 worth of cuts to lifestyle services and the Citizens Advice Bureau.

An extra one-off investment of £60,000 was proposed to pump money into social clubs and activities for disabled people.

The parties claimed they could save £527,000 from the budgets of the children's, change and governance, economy and environment, and adult social care sectors.

They said by taking into account the time employment positions were, on average, left vacant in all those departments for various reasons, it meant the overall budget could be shrunk to make large savings.

A further £348,642 would come from earmarked reserves.

Conservative leader Councillor Mike Bird said his party would stick with the original budget if they ruled cabinet after the local elections. But he said he agreed with the campaign group, Walsall Against Cuts, that the government was destroying local authorities.

He said: "This government has waged war on local governments and continues to do so.

"I am critical of what our government is doing, not just here but across the country. Whether they know the effect the cuts are having on local communities I don't know.

"But keeping everything open is not going to happen if we are going to look after the elderly, children and those in social care.

"I cannot see this government making any change of direction so we have to move on with what we have got."

Councillor Bird said the Conservatives had also planned to keep Pleck Library open as a pilot scheme, with it being used as an Open Plus facility, which would include entry via a smart card. But he admitted the budget still included closing the other six other libraries, which would save the council £543,000.

He said: "Year-on-year we have continued to support them but how many times are we going to kick that football around?

"This decision will not be made now but will be made by cabinet – and this is the budget I will be working to.

Walsall Against Cuts campaigner Andy Summers said the group had collected more than 800 signatures against the proposed cuts.

"We don't want the parties to get into a slanging match because that is a central government strategy to get us all arguing together," he said.

"The most vulnerable are being affected by these cuts and the national government keeps putting the squeeze on people locally.

"This budget is being carried out against the interests of the Walsall people."

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