Community halls and libraries update
The Chair invited Jim Lester, Head of Cultural Services, to update the meeting on the Strategy Asset Review.
Jim Lester reported that a public inquiry on the libraries conducted by Sue Charteris at the Floral Pavilion has just been concluded. The report is expected by the end of July when the Council will consider what further action, if any, they will take. The Council had suspended the closures when the public inquiry was announced and the libraries will remain open pending the outcome of the inquiry.
Councillor Hale reported that he had attended the public inquiry on the Tuesday and Wednesday and had given evidence in favour of keeping the libraries open. He had been impressed with every speaker from every community from Wirral who spoke at that inquiry. An amazing case had been put forward to keep the libraries open particularly on the Wednesday morning when people had been questioned most closely. Their responses had been outstanding.
Councillor Green reported that he had also attended the inquiry, and he agreed with Councillor Hale’s comments about the input by a range of people who were in favour of retaining the libraries. Councillor Green had asked whether an Equality and Impact Assessment had been carried out prior to the closure, and what the current status of that is. Sue Charteris had asked the same question, but it appeared that a full Equality and Impact Assessment has not been undertaken for any of the centres.
Jim Lester continued that the process of looking at transferring the community halls and community centres has started as outlined in the SAR. Discussions have been held with centre management committees locally and a joint meeting has been held with three community centres. The commissioning of structural surveys on the building has begun and the process will continue, on a two-year timescale.
Councillor Hale reported on discussions at the joint meeting about the repairs needed to the buildings, and concerns about whether the surveys will be extensive enough to cover all the problems identified so that the management committees know exactly what they are taking on.
Jim Lester explained that Social Funding is a Community Fund which is topped up annually and has about £2.5 to £3 million this year. An undertaking has been given to try and transfer assets in a good condition. The intention is to do full surveys, to find out any issues within the buildings and put them right. The Council does not want to transfer assets and then see the community fail. To help avoid this, the communities will be helped with business planning etc. It is a complex operation, but there are already three pilots that are quite advanced in other areas. The intention is that all buildings will be put in good order and there is money in the community fund to do that.
A member of the public asked the questions: ‘How much money will the Council save by selling off the halls, and where will that money go?’ ‘How much money will the Council Tax payer save?’
Jim Lester replied that on the Community side, the target is £150, 000, but the Authority has a reducing budget and it has to reduce this budget each year.
Councillor Green asked the question: ‘If we don’t have community centres, what do we pay our Council Tax for?’ He added that there is an issue about the way local government is being targeted. The National Audit Office is there to come up with a series of priorities and point all the resources of the Council towards those priorities. The issue is about the whole approach. There is a need for new localism in which people have a much greater say in what services will be provided, instead of being given instructions by the Government and the Council on what those services should be
The Chair commented that it would be impossible for Westbourne Hall to survive on its own. The management committees for Hoylake Community and for Greasby Community Centre have been talking about a proposal to get together and run the three Centres as a joint business venture.
The Chair invited Mr Vaughan Williams, Chairman of the Hoylake Community Centre, to describe the talks.
Mr Williams stated that although some movement has been made towards the withdrawal of funding in 2011, only 18 months of the two-year programme remain, and very little has happened so far. At a meeting at the Hoylake Centre, David Ball had made it clear that things would happen at a greater rate of progress in future.
There had been talk about a condition survey of the buildings. No one will take on something they are not sure about, because the money will not be there. The survey turned out to be a walk about by people, who said OK. The roof, heating, drains etc., had not been part of the survey. The inspector had conceded that these will be checked, but to what extent had not been explained.
The reason for getting together is for each centre to give support to each other. There is a strong desire for Westbourne Hall, Greasby and Hoylake centres to survive, but to do this you need a strong joint management committee, and this is very difficult to achieve. People are working and they have limited time to give. One solution would be to employ a manager centrally who would deal with the lettings for the three centres, and to procure someone who would do a single accountancy job. By doing this it should be possible to preserve this great hall and run the other two centres. Mr Williams added that he was reasonably confident that it would be possible to move forward in that way. He was concerned about the speed of progress with the Local Authority, and the only reassurance that had been given had been that money is available in a dowry to put the buildings in good order. He would like to say with some confidence that all the centres will survive, but there are serious doubts about some of the smaller ones. For the three centres to survive with a joint management committee, they will have to become a really serious commercial organisation.
Mr Williams continued that Hoylake Community Centre is celebrating its centenary with a week-long series of events from 22 to 28 June. There will be a free exhibition of the 100 years of the Parade School building and old Hoylake. This will give an opportunity for people to see how their ancestors lived and a visit to the refurbished Victorian/-Edward classroom will show how they went to school. A visit is expected from Heather Chapman, a local historian.
A member of the public explained that she has been researching the history of the Parade School using records that were left behind when the school closed. Members of the community have come forward with information and photographs, and that is what next week is all about – sharing what has been learned and celebrating 100 years in the old school.
In summarising the discussion, the Chair stated that local Councillors are totally opposed to the closure of the libraries and a report on the inquiry is awaited. On the matter of the halls, people are trying to do their best to make sure the halls do survive, and local councillors will support people in this in every way possible.