Walsall Council cuts: Deputy leader tells of agonising decisions amid criticism
"There have been agonies over it . . . it was very difficult."
These are the words of Walsall Council's deputy leader Lee Jeavons after the council announced its revised budget plans yesterday, with hundreds of jobs and nine libraries in line for the axe.
Councillor Sean Coughlan, the leader of the council, and Councillor Ian Shires, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Walsall who are in a coalition with the Labour group, added the process was 'really tough' and 'not easy' as council tax goes up a further one per cent and some school crossing patrols are to go.
The cuts were not as bad as first feared, with seven libraries staying open, the Leather Museum staying put and the future of the New Art Gallery all but secured.
But that did not make the process any easier, according to Walsall Council bosses.
Councillor Jeavons said: "There have been agonies over it, quite literally agonies. Lots of very, very robust discussion.
"Look at some of the services we have had to adjust and change, we are talking about services for children, for vulnerable adults and services that people love like libraries. It has been difficult to do."
Councillor Coughlan added: "It has not been easy, it has been really tough. It has been tough in the sense that I have new cabinet members, people who have never been in this position before.
"We have only had 19 months of control of this council in 17 years so in lots of ways it was a difficult period to go through."
The council said it listened to residents with more than a quarter of its original proposals being amended or scrapped.
Among the changes include the council pulling back on its plans to remove school transport services for children with special education needs over-16.
But the proposals have been criticised by the Conservative leader in Walsall, Councillor Mike Bird, who said the library closures would lead to 'isolation' for the elderly.
He also accused Councillor Coughlan of treating him and his group 'with contempt' and acting out of 'spite' in closing his ward's library.
He said: "When we had control of the council and we proposed library closures we proposed having a library within two miles of every resident – this is not the case this time.
"The proposals will lead to further isolation for elderly residents.
"Pelsall library only opened in the last few years at a cost of £5 million. It houses several doctors surgeries and a nursery which means the council will effectively be running the building for the NHS. It has not been costed properly. I also think Councillor Coughlan has treated me and my group with contempt. There is a protocol that elected members see documents before the press but I have had to get the information from the press. When I was in control of the council he and his members got to see every bit of paper we saw."
Asked about his local library in Pheasey, which has been earmarked for closure, Councillor Bird added: "I think there is a certain amount of spite involved with me, Councillor Adrian Andrew and Councillor Chris Towe being the three ward councillors there."
One library which has been saved however is Darlaston, much to the delight of Councillor Doug James. He said: "A big thank you to the hundreds of Darlaston and Moxley residents for our petition, social media campaign, letters, attending meetings. You made the difference".
"Throughout the consultation I have been inundated by library users and local people who want education, books and their library kept at the heart of our community".
"Some notable people sat on their hands and took a cynical view that decisions had already been made.
"More fool them, several communities are tragically losing their libraries. We need to engage in consultations not listen to dreary cynics".
Walsall Council had previously proposed to stop its funding for the New Art Gallery, which could have led to its closure. The issue hit the national headlines and led to an outpouring of support from the likes of artist Grayson Perry and Slade frontman Noddy Holder.
The Government was also asked to take steps to ensure the future of the gallery after a House of Lords debate during which the Earl of Clancarty, Nicholas Power Richard Le Poer Trench, said that the potential closure would be a terrible waste of public investment, before adding that the West Midlands needs as much support as possible at this moment in time.
He said "The threat of closure of our regional museums is the direct result of continuing cuts to local government funding."