Closure of Hoylake Library, Westbourne Hall & Hoylake Community Centres
Councillor Hale explained that in June 2007, the Cabinet had appointed consultants [at a cost of £100,000] to examine and report back on leisure and community facilities across Wirral. The consultants had presented their report in March and when, as Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, Councillor Hale had asked for a copy, his request had been refused. The first sight he had of the report was 48 hours before the Cabinet meeting on 27 November.
In summary, the report recommended the closure of 13 libraries, including Hoylake library, the closure of Woodchurch and Leasowe Leisure Centres, the closure of all swimming pools, including Guinea Gap, the Grange Road West Sorts Centre, two museums, the Pacific Road Arts Centre, and 22 community centres. Councillor Hale called a meeting of the Scrutiny Committee on 10 December to look at the proposals. The proposal of the Conservative group was that the recommendations should not go any further, but the group was outvoted. It was proposed that there should be four area forum meetings, one in each Parliamentary constituency. Despite difficulties encountered by many people in travelling to the venues, all four meetings were attended by a minimum of 500 people, and some by over 800. The consultation period included Christmas and New Year period. The Council ultimately decided to reprieve some of the facilities, including the swimming pools, but to close premises on which there had been no previous mention or consultation. The biggest issue for this area is the proposal to close Hoylake Library.
The Chair invited Liz Webster to pass on the views of Residents’ groups on library facilities, particularly in Hoylake.
Councillor Hale stated that he agreed entirely with the sentiments expressed by the local community, and he commended Liz on her skill in presenting the case on behalf of residents. He added that he had extended a written invitation to the Leader of the Council, Councillor Steve Foulkes, to attend the meeting this evening and explain the rationale for the closures, but clearly the invitation had not been accepted.
The Chair invited Vaughan Williams, Chair of the Community Centre, to address the meeting. He added that the Vice Chair of Westbourne Hall was also in attendance.
Vaughan Williams began his presentation with the comment that the Centre would be celebrating its Centenary this year.
Hoyle Road Community Centre has the biggest attendance of any other in Wirral, and provides facilities for children with special needs. The Management Committee is actively engaged in looking at ways it may continue to provide those valuable facilities.
Alan Stennard, Director of Regeneration, responded to the main points raised by the speakers and members of the public. He acknowledged that he was not in a position to respond tonight to all the points raised. He added that the original plan had been to close the facilities on 31 March 2009. To meet contractual obligations etc., the Council has allocated sufficient funding to keep the facilities open, where necessary, until June
Stephen Hesford, MP, advised that he had been in Westminster when he had received notification for the first time by email about 48 hours before the announcement was made. After investigation, he had reached the conclusion that the whole thing was a badly thought out and badly designed programme. As a result, he had demanded a meeting with Senior Council Officers and other Wirral MPs. A suggestion was made at that meeting that there should be a joint communiqué about how the MPs intended to approach the issue, but he had refused to sign any kind of joint communiqué. The MP had made it clear at a meeting on 28 November that he did not agree with the closure of any services in his constituency. Everyone was now aware of developments since then and as the local MP he was prepared to do all he could to support the local community.
Stephen Hesford continued that although he would not want to tell people what to do, in his opinion there are two options. Firstly, a judicial review [which would be costly and the Secretary of State might not find fruitful], or more realistically, people can write individually or collectively to the Local Government Ombudsman. The MP has arranged to meet the Ombudsman on 19 February, when he would present a report he began preparing in November.
Stephen Hesford stated that the current issue is the most serious one he has had to address so far in his political career, and he wanted to make it absolutely clear how people might fight to the end. In his view, the whole thing has been completely finance-drive, and it should not be. If the Ombudsman could be persuaded of that fact, and is able to understand the subsidiary affect, it might be possible to make some positive progress.
There have been enquiries from other parts of the world. Wirral has made national headlines and national TV, because there is simply no precedent for this. One of the surprises was the unexpected reaction of the community.
The Chair thanked Stephen Hesford for his speech. Members of the public expressed their appreciation through spontaneous prolonged applause.
In bringing the lengthy debate to a conclusion, the Chair stated that both the consultation and the decision-making process are fundamentally flawed, and that fact will be conveyed to the Ombudsman. He urged everyone who feels strongly about the issue to write a letter of complaint to the Council [Jim Wilkie] and to follow that up with a complaint to the Ombudsman. People might also choose to write to the Secretary of State for the Environment.
The Chair announced that due to the late hour, it would be necessary to postpone the agenda item on the Integrated Transport Block. He apologised to the representatives from partnerships who had made themselves available this evening. The Chair urged people who have a question they wish to raise to speak to Forum members individually, or direct any queries in writing to the Area Co-ordinator.