Express & Star

Face-to-face Walsall Council service axed in 'penny-pinching' move

Walsall Council's First Stop Shop is set to permanently close as part of as move away from face-to-face services.

The First Stop Shop is based at Walsall Civic Centre on Hatherton Road

The service, based in the Civic Centre on Hatherton Road, allows residents to speak with council staff over issues including housing benefit, council tax, planning issues and homelessness.

It has been closed to the public since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020. Now it has emerged it may never reopen, with council chiefs looking to replace it with a new online system.

Walsall Council leader, Councillor Mike Bird, said: "We are looking at different ways of communicating with the public and the First Stop Shop is not the answer.

"We are looking at a website-based system that we hope to have up and running in the next few weeks. This will enable people to access services 24 hours a day, rather than normal opening hours.

"The First Stop Shop has not been open for 18 months and in my view has not been missed."

Mr Bird said discussions were ongoing over how best to engage with residents who are unable to use digital communications.

The move has been slammed by Councillor Pete Smith, who represents Blakenall as an independent.

He described the permanent closure as a "penny-pinching move" and a "major inconvenience to the public", many of whom found going online either "impractical or impossible".

"The closure of this service is discriminatory against those citizens who are not computer and internet savvy such as many elderly folk, many low income households and many with learning difficulties," he added.

"Even those who are internet savvy often need to sort out a complicated issue face to face with a 'real' person.

"Thousands of residents who really need face to face help will be now be forced into trying to communicate with some invisible, anonymous 'who knows who', speaking from 'who knows where', not even knowing whether they are talking to someone in Walsall, Wales, Winchester or Western Australia!

"As computer trained staff sit working cosily from home in their furry slippers and with mugs of coffee at hand, I fear that the next penny-pinching move will be to turn over these jobs to private agencies."

Meanwhile Mr Bird said the council was working on a plan to get office staff back in the Civic Centre on a rota basis early in the New Year, a move that would be dependant on Covid restrictions.

He also said the authority was currently unable to host full council meetings in the Chamber due to numbers being limited to 32 under health and safety rules.

Many local authorities across the country have started to scale back public-facing services since the pandemic hit.

They include Dudley Council, which has announced the scrapping of its Dudley Council Plus service at Stourbridge and Brierley Hill libraries due to a drop in usage and layout changes.

It has also blocked the use of cash at two other sites.