Sean Coughlan, Leader of Walsall Council .
The leader of Labour run Walsall Council has said the borough’s most successful public consultation on the authority’s proposed budget had shown it was ready to listen and act on the views of voters while protecting the most vulnerable members of the community.
Cllr Sean Coughlan said the council’s had reached out to 4,600 people in August and September and received over 7,000 responses to 54 draft proposals drawn up to deal with £29 million of government cuts to the authority’s 2015-16 budget.
Following the consultation over £1.5 million has been found to protect services voters felt to be essential to their communities; including maintaining free parking in town centres, continuing to support community associations and rejecting garden waste collection fees.
The council’s “RecruitAbility” programme will continue to support disabled people into work at the council and the Fallings Heath respite care centre for people with disabilities will remain open.
“Under the Tories and Liberal Democrats, past budgets have been designed to protect ‘front of store’ services, such as libraries, at the expense of the behind the scenes but vital departments such as social care. From the outset as a Labour group we have put the protection of the most vulnerable at the top of our priority list. The budget is designed to protect the core services people rely on; it’s a budget that says that the vulnerable – the people least often heard – won’t be left behind.
“In that aim it is fundamentally different from recent budgets when the biggest share of government cuts in Walsall fell on those reliant on social care; the elderly, the disabled and the young. Under this administration, those people can be assured this council will not expect them to pay for an international recession started in bankers’ board rooms.
“That has meant making decisions such as recruiting social workers to look after the elderly and disabled or keeping libraries open. We’d like to do both but in the face of £86 million in government cuts over four years, £29 million this year alone, these are the sort of choices we have to make.
Adding that, in the past, the Labour group had been critically of how little consultation had taken place with residents; he went on to say: “We decided to reach out and draw as many people into this process as possible. The Tories and their fellow travellers have attacked that decision but the response of the public has shown how wrong they were. We’ve listened to what Walsall people have had to say and where we can, we have acted. Openness and transparency can’t be a paper exercise and those politicians who lobbied the council while at same time saying the consultation is a waste of time have to explain their hypocritical stance.”
Responding to legitimate concerns over the closure of some services he added: “Ordinary people are very concerned about government cuts such as closing Children’s Centres and libraries. I want to emphasis that in the case of children’s centres it is the building that will close while the service itself will be continued to be delivered on an outreach basis and Surestart centres will remain open.
“As for libraries, the closure date for Streetly, Pheasey, Beechdale, Walsall Wood and Walsall South has been deferred for three months to provide time for local community groups to discuss their proposals for running book services. Proposals that are scheduled to come into effect in 2016-17 will be subject to further consultation later this year for a final decision in February 2016.”
A full report on the changes will go to cabinet on February 4 2015 and can be accessed at www.walsall.gov.uk/budgethaveyoursay