6 Jan 2009

The heat is on

Last night I attended the special area forum at the Lauries Centre on the Council’s plans to slash community facilities. The venue was packed to overflowing and it was certainly a heated affair. None of the councillors and council officials present could have been left in any doubt how angry people are at these proposals.

The meeting got off to a bad start when the audience had to sit through around 30 minutes of presentations from council officials which tried to put a positive spin on the cutbacks. Even the brochure handed out to people had the misleading title “transforming Wirral”, as if life would be better when half our libraries and recreation centres have been mothballed. This only served to wind people up. They know the cuts represent a huge reduction in council services and can see through the spin. It is rather bizarre when we are told that cutbacks are essential but the end result will be an improvement. However, the culture of spin now so infects our daily lives that many in positions of authority seem to know no other way.

The leader of the council – Labour’s Steve Foulkes – had an uncomfortable evening. There was no support whatsoever from the floor. Many excellent points were raised throughout the evening and some of those that stood out for me were:
People really value their local facilities and they know that closures will have a major impact on their communities
The poorest and least mobile will be worst hit. There are major social implications here and this is the most worrying aspect of these proposals
It was made abundantly clear that the local bus service is woefully inadequate and far too expensive for the young and non car owners
People have a real affection for Birkenhead library and do not want to see it close
The same goes for Pacific Road and Grange Road West. I was really impressed by the young people who spoke with genuine passion for these facilities

Dozens of jobs will be lost at a time when unemployment is rising sharply

So, what to do….

Well firstly the council faces hard questions why it has allowed so many local facilities to deteriorate to such an extent that in its own words they are “no longer fit for purpose”. The fiasco over Birkenhead library suggests that basic maintenance of our facilities has been ignored. This issue extends across the political mainstream as it is barely 18 months since Wirral was governed by a coalition of Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dem. This meant that there was no opposition whatsoever and basic scrutiny of council operations was non-existent. This is just another reason why we urgently need a broader spectrum of representation on the council.

Secondly, there are cost savings to be made that would have no effect on local services. The Council needs to seriously examine it’s priorities. I don’t think it is acceptable in the current climate that significant sums are being allocated to promote grandiose schemes including boutique hotels and golf resorts in West Wirral while basic public services in Birkenhead are facing closure. Neither has the council got to grips with it’s own energy costs. Every council meeting I attend seems to be overheated and last night we had the ludicrous situation where a labour councillor was opening the window in the council run Lauries Centre because the room was grossly overheated.

Ultimately, we need real political change. People are rightly angry that the government can find £37bn to bail out the banking system and £12bn for a pointless VAT reduction but when it comes to local services the cupboard is bare. One has to ask what is the point in supporting a Labour led Council if it cannot secure appropriate funding from a Labour government? It is also clear that the Council Tax is an abject failure and needs urgent reform.

If you missed last night’s event you can still attend the remaining meetings all of which start at 7pm:
§ Tuesday, January 6th - Hulme Hall in Port Sunlight
§ Wednesday, January 7th - West Kirby Concourse in West Kirby
§ Thursday, January 8th - The Floral Pavilion in New Brighton

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