A government report by the ‘Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ has recommended that Wirral Council reduces “the number of libraries, leisure centres, golf clubs, and public conveniences in order to balance the books.
The report mentions other areas where potential savings should be made in addition to the sale of assets, including “staffing efficiencies”, Community Asset Transfer (CAT) or rationalisation of five youth clubs, seven community centres and four golf clubs.
The report says that the Council has a significant asset (ie property and land) portfolio, which can “potentially generate significant capital receipts.” It goes on to say that the asset portfolio is also a “considerable drain” on financial resources, due to maintenance and other issues.
The Council currently operates from 19 offices. The Council’s regeneration plans for Birkenhead include new Council offices, which are a part of the asset consolidation and staff relocation project that will reduce the number of offices that the Council uses. The Council plans to dispose of 10 of its existing office sites as part of this consolidation.
Additionally, the Council has recently leased the Treasury Building in Hamilton Square to Wirral Metropolitan College, therefore adding much-needed income to its coffers.
The report continues, “Both leisure centres and libraries are currently subject to a strategic review, which may impact on the volume of assets required in future.” Wirral currently has some 16 libraries throughout the borough and the above statement from the Government report clearly indicates that the Council should reduce the number of libraries that it operates.
The considerable delay around parking charges was criticised in the report. Extending and increasing car parking charges at existing council operated car parks is mentioned specifically. There was “a reluctance amongst Members [Councillors] to take strategic decisions in the longer-term interests of the Council because of the short-term political risks they might create”, the report said, referencing without naming the Conservative Group who opposed the increases.
“Overall Council spending is high compared to similar unitary authorities.”, the report states. “This is particularly the case for cultural and related leisure services, where spending in Wirral per head is the highest of the 15 other statistical neighbour councils.” The cultural and related leisure services that the report refers to are the aforementioned leisure centres, golf clubs and libraries.
Regarding the long-term financial plan, the report says, “The Council needs to develop a long-term plan for the assets that it holds and how it will maintain them without having to put further pressure on Council borrowing. This means that the Council will need to develop a more realistic asset disposal strategy, focusing on reducing the number of libraries, leisure centres, golf clubs, and public conveniences.”
This leads to the fact that it is practically inevitable that Wirral residents will lose some of their treasured civic amenities, such as libraries and swimming pools.
The Council Officers and Councillors of all parties are in the unenviable position of compromising between Wirral residents welfare and wellbeing and closing the budget gap, caused in no small part by the reduction of over £20m per year of central government funding since 2010.
Readers may find it difficult to equate the content of the report with the government’s promise to ‘level up’ regional disparities in the UK by means of investing in towns, cities, and rural and coastal areas.
This is a complex and multi-faceted issue and it really can’t be covered in full detail in a single news article. Should you wish to read more:
This article is based on parts of the 40-page government report, published this month: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1030404/CIPFA_Report_Wirral.pdf
For the external Assurance Review, published in September of this year, visit: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1030406/Governance_review_Wirral_Metropolitan_Borough_Council.pdf
A short letter from, Kemi Badenoch MP, Minister of State for Equalities and Levelling Up Communities in response to the report can be seen by visiting: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1030170/Ministerial_response_to_the_review_-_Wirral.pdf
Image credit: www.birkenhead2020.com