Buying Saddlers Centre could have ‘saved Walsall libraries’

Libraries could have been saved if a cash-strapped council bought a £12.5 million shopping centre sooner, the authority's boss has claimed.

The Saddlers Centre
The Saddlers Centre

Councillor Sean Coughlan, the Labour leader of Walsall Council, has claimed if the Saddlers Shopping Centre was bought three years ago under the previous Conservative administration then some of the nine libraries shut this year under desperate cost-cutting measures could have stayed open.

His comments came as he defended his administration's decision to spend £13.8 million on the centre, describing the move as 'very positive for Walsall'. He also added the centre would bring 'significant income back to the council', believed to be a profit of around £800,000 a year.

He said yesterday: "If the previous administration had done this three years ago we would have been able to keep libraries open because the money will be used to keep vital services in Walsall open rather having them cut by the government."

He added in a separate statement: "Walsall is by no means the first local authority to seek to make a property acquisition of this nature. As the impact of the government's austerity measures is felt more deeply, we will have to be creative and innovative in order to still be able to provide services that, whilst much valued by our residents, are not statutory services.

"We know we can't continue to deliver services in the way we're currently delivering them. We're faced with a stark choice; we either bring more income in or more services are stopped or reduced."

But Councillor Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of the council three years ago, has refuted Councillor Coughlan's claims.

He said: "The Saddlers Centre was not for sale three years ago.

"Online shopping is here to stay and the fact is they are investing in a declining sector.

"If the centre is going to be worth £10m more in five years time as the council say then why is Topland selling it? They only bought it five years ago and they specialise in retail.

"People do not understand why there services are being cut when the council are able to purchase a shopping centre and its multi-storey car park.

"Councillor Coughlan will need to go a long way to convince me that this deal is a good investment. Rest assured when I am back in the UK I will unpick this before it is finalised."

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