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Revenue budget, library closures, budget cuts and community centres were just some of the items at a lengthy Council Executive Board meeting.

The meeting itself lasted over three hours, with over 90 minutes of the meeting focusing on the Revenue Budget for the next 12 months. Although it must be pointed out there wasn’t much with regards to cuts on the agenda that hasn’t already been discussed or reported on before, despite the large amounts of talking. We will not refer to debate, as there was little back and forth actual discussion rather mini-speeches then a move to another councillor.

One decision expected today was the ‘leisure service review‘, which centres on the possibility of Plas Madoc and Waterworld being closed and knocked down. As the consultation took place over the festive period it has been extended, which begs the question if any other council consultations over the festive periods will be equally devalued and seen in a different light. Wrexham.com understands it is possible a solution is being looked at to replace Plas Madoc with a smaller centre, however we have seen no firm plans.

The meeting appeared at times inefficient, with the declarations of interests causing issues from the start due to Councillors enquiring if libraries and community centres in their wards could require them to declare their interest. This required a short stoppage to consult the rules.

Those who follow our live tweet updates may notice that a pet peeve of ours is the misunderstanding of the audio equipment. The process is simple, click a switch to turn on a microphone when you are speaking then turn it off afterwards, and until you do turn it off no one else can use the speaker system. Today we counted 14 different microphone cock ups, which in the grander scheme of things is not a huge issue but does constantly interrupt the flow of the meeting.

As regular readers of this website will know Wrexham Council is due to receive a -3.5% reduction in total funding for the Authority, resulting in a potential £45,000,000 of savings to be made over five years. A consultation has been completed with a underwhelming 0.5% of the local population response rate – you can read the detail here – and today the Executive Board were looking to finally agree on its contents.

Cllr Malcolm King said: “The consultation document itself concentrates on the severe financial challenges. There are pretty huge cuts facing the local authorities and there is not one single solution that would make the huge savings required.”

During the 90 minutes, many of the questions asked centred around the future of The Venture contributions, bus subsidies, street lighting and grass cutting, with Councillors often reiterating points that had already been raised several times in meetings prior to today.

Despite the consultation being completed, concerns on the openness and transparency of the consultation were raised, with one Councillor stating that you ‘needed to be a computer whizz kid to take part’. Others were still concerned by the amount and presentation of data, with it mentioned some data was only made available in the past week.

Questions were also again raised on the position of the Mayor, and whether costs could be saved by simply not having a Mayor until funds will allow it. Cllr Terry Evans asked: “Should the chain and regalia be put in the museum, until the good times and the money returns?”

Council Leader Neil Rogers replied saying three meetings have been conducted since it was first raised, and no councillor has put forward a motion on the issue.

The ‘Forward Work Programme’ was also nodded through today, which includes the external pay recommendations for Councillors. Normally that takes the form of hand wringing of councillors saying they don’t want it however their hands are tied as it is an external body. It will be interesting to see if on that point things change in the current climate of large cuts, or if the current £900,000 per year cost base will remain unaltered or even increase, for the Mayor and for Councillors as a whole.

Cllr David. A Bithell suggested an amendment to the budget recommendation, proposing that consideration on Revenue Budget was deferred for an all member workshop, prior to coming back to the Executive Board in February. Cllr Bithell said: “These are unprecedented cuts and it’s down to the local council to decide where we spend the money.

“I think it’s right and proper that Plas Madoc comes back to the Executive Board. Community centres are far from complete and the same with libraries, no one wants to them closed.”

It was revealed in the meeting that the subject of financial cuts and ‘reshaping services’ had been discussed 26 times, with Cllr Mark Pritchard saying: “I will not support the amendment as we will be putting off the inevitable. As members, not one of us come into politics to cut local services.”

The Board voted against the deferral of the Revenue budget, with the majority of the Board voting to pass the original budget recommendation.

Community Centres were also on the agenda today, with Cllr David Griffiths stating: “The report to be considered today would pave the way for the future of community centres.” Our full report on the presentation can be found here.

Two main elements of debate emerged, with Cllr David Kelly raising concerns about ensuring a fair transfer of assets to community groups if they took over the running of centres. The overall aim appears to be that the Council offers peppercorn leases to take the running costs of the centres off their books and into community hands.

The second strand revolved around the funding of centres by schools and a ‘limbo land’ where a community centre may not get funding before closure dates. The meeting was told by the Lead Member: “If none of the schools are willing to take them on, we would have to defer the decision.”

No indications on the progress of discussions were able to be provided.

Councillors also voted in favour of closing libraries in Brymbo and Gresford in April unless an alternative options are found. This is alongside a reduction in library opening hours by up to 19%.

The closure of the two libraries combined with the reduction of opening hours would save £92,000. Discussions on cuts to library services began in February of last year, when the Council were initially looking to make library savings of around £123,000 to £198,000. The closure of libraries was initially rejected and it was proposed that alternative solutions were looked at.

Speaking about the proposed closure and reductions in opening hours, Lead Member for Communities, Partnership and Collaboration Cllr Hugh Jones said: “Library and information services cannot be immune.

“The proposals today come as a result of public consultation, Scrutiny consultation and discussion with relevant members of the libraries involved.”

In November the report went before the Homes, Environment and Communities Scrutiny Committee, who rejected proposals to close libraries in Brymbo, Rhos and Gresford. Instead the committee opted for a 26% reduction in opening hours across the County Borough. Along with this the Committee recommended that the use of community hubs as a possible option to house the libraries, was also looked into.

Cllr Jones stated that he had three objectives with regards to the libraries, saying: “The first is to protect the library service as a whole from serious damage, the second is to provide the best possible library service across the County Borough. The third, and an important one is to protect the library service from salami cuts, and not losing a library each year.

“I cannot go on or recommend reducing the opening hours by 26%, as this would do considerable damage across the County Borough and result in a library service not fit for purpose. We need to provide sufficient opening hours to meet the needs of certain protective groups.”

Cllr Jones added: “By the time we get to April this would have been ongoing for 15 months.”

As with previous Library based meetings, the topic generated a deal of expression of concern, with some councillors expressing their disappointment and worry for the communities who are losing their library service.

Cllr Bob Dutton said: “It is a great disappointment to me after refurbishing nine libraries we are now going backwards. I’ve got concerns about the developments of a trust. The recommendations at the moment will at least salvage most of the library services. I hope in the future we can bring them back.”

Speaking about the closure of Gresford library, Councillor for Gresford, Cllr Andrew Bailey spoke of the numerous expressions of support he had received from residents of Gresford. Cllr Bailey also reminded and invited members of the Board and public gallery to a public meeting in Gresford Memorial Hall on Wednesday 29th January at 7:30pm to discuss potential future provision of the Gresford library.

Cllr Rodney Skelland stated that ‘libraries are becoming dated’ and made reference to internet cafes and people who now use technology to download books. One comment that was rounded upon was his views that his iPad in front of him could do ‘everything’ and ‘Wrexham only needs one main library’ as ‘technology has moved on’.

Cllr Alun Jenkins stated: “The value of libraries goes without saying, there are many people who do not like holding a Kindle in front of them and like the feel of an old fashioned book. There is a need for libraries and long live that need for libraries.”

However Cllr Jones replied: “If you’d been round the libraries with me and seen the number of pre school and school kids using the libraries, you would have a totally different point of view. Libraries are fit for purpose and have bought into the 21st century.”

 

Last month we used the word ‘shambles’ to describe a meeting on the future of Waterworld and Plas Madoc and Councillors themselves have criticised their own ability to scrutinise, however it appears after today that extended lengths of time to debate issues does not appear to push things forward, rather just kicks cans down an inevitable road.

As a couple of people have said to us, they are looking forward to the introduction of ‘Council TV’ webcasting of meetings as it may highlight the process of meetings and the repetition of points made. Hopefully as and when the webcasting is put live Wrexham Council will allow any video broadcast to be rights free, allowing those who wish to mash up, replay and provide shortened versions which may illustrate this point better.