A petition has been set up urging the authority to reopen the First Stop Shop, which has been closed since the first Covid lockdown of March 2020. The petition has attracted dozens of signatures.
Prior to the closure, residents were able to visit the Civic Centre to talk to staff directly when they had issues in areas such as council tax and housing.
Despite the easing of restrictions, the First Stop Shop has remained closed and people are being increasingly directed to access services online, leading to concerns people are not getting the help they need at a time of crisis.
Walsall Council said it is improving its website and digital services, while those without computer access will be supported in borough libraries.
The petition set up by Parveen Rehman said: “As the cost of living crisis bites deeper, we call on Walsall Council to take immediate steps to reopen in person advice at the First Stop Shop to help signpost support people desperately need.”
Among the people who signed it, Dana O’Connor said: “Too many people find speaking on the telephone difficult and/or no online access at all.
“Please Walsall Council reopen the one stop shop. Covid awareness is widespread and it’s very easy to implement measures to protect staff.”
Alan Harrison added: “The availability of a face-to-face service is important in a borough like Walsall. Many people do not have computer access or skills.”
Paddock ward councillor Waheed Rasab has called on the authority to reopen the service after being contacted by residents.
He said: “I’ve had residents ringing me who are upset the First Stop Shop has remained closed and want it reopened.
“People are asking us why the Civic Centre is closed. They say they need it open because not everyone is equipped with modern technology. There are old aged pensioners who don’t have computers or even if they do, they are unsure how to use it.
“A few weeks ago, an OAP in my ward phoned me to ask me to go over and help him renew his disabled badge for him because he didn’t know how to. So I took my computer and did it.
“People need somewhere to go in the town centre so they can get the exact help they need.”
Shaz Akhtar, of Walsall Unite Community Branch, who has supported the petition said: “First Stop Shop is an important service for residents to enquire about services available in a face to face contact.
“The service prior to the pandemic endeavoured to deal with as many enquiries and service requests as possible without the need for referral.
“Although support is moving online many people in Walsall do not have access to go online for help.
“With the rise of living costs this service is vital for residents to go and enquire about what services are available to support them during these difficult times.
“We are hopeful the council will reconsider and provide this vital service to the diverse community it serves. Local council need to step up and support.”
Councillor Gaz Ali, portfolio holder for customer engagement at Walsall Council, said: “During 2021, the council asked residents across the borough about how, and where, they would prefer to access advice and services following their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“That feedback was used to develop a new Customer Experience Strategy, which was endorsed by cabinet in December 2021.
“In response to this feedback, the council has already started to invest significantly in improving the quality of our website, online services and telephony support.
“The customer engagement work also identified that some vulnerable, elderly, and digitally-excluded residents will continue to need frontline support on a face-to-face basis.
“As a result, first line advice, digital assistance and free wi-fi is available in the Walsall Library on Lichfield Street (just over the road from the former First Stop Shop and next door to the Town Hall).
“The council is also in the process of rolling out first-line support and digital assistance across the other six libraries in Walsall, community hubs and a range of other trusted partner locations, as part of our ‘Walsall Connected’ campaign.
“We are in the process of developing plans to modernise the Civic Centre and as part of that intend to introduce a reception space in the building, which will help with signposting the support that is available.
“The reason for the change in approach from a Walsall Town Centre-only location, is that our vulnerable and elderly residents overwhelmingly said that they would prefer to access advice and support in locations closer to their own homes, to keep travelling time and transport costs down.”