AT LEAST a dozen libraries, three leisure centres, two museums and a theatre are to be shut under radical cost-cutting plans revealed by Wirral Council.
Communities across the borough have reacted with shock at the disclosure that the council is planning a massive cull of some of its best loved buildings.
But last night Cllr Steve Foulkes, leader of Wirral Council, said "doing nothing was never an option".
He said: "If we leave things as they are, we will be left with crumbling buildings, mounting repair costs and escalating levels of council tax."
Condemning the closure scheme, Tory opposition leader Jeff Green, said: "What is the point of having a council if it’s not going to provide the services people want – they tax them through the nose and give nothing back."
The report outlining the plans will be considered by the cabinet on Thursday, and is still subject to consultation, but should lead to £4m savings a year.
The council insists the massive review of all its buildings was necessary and said the plan also includes an investment of £20m over four years to develop a network of "state-of-the-art multi-purpose complexes", some newly built.
It is also possible these could be "co-located" with other public services such as the police, fire and health service, or even private sector organisations.
The council currently faces a £10m backlog of repairs to its buildings – stock which was largely inherited in 1974 from five district councils which previously governed Wirral, each of which brought their own property portfolio. Even today, many of Wirral Council’s assets remain largely unchanged from these.
The authority also faces rising energy costs and a shifting in the centres of population across the borough, as well as dealing with a massive budget deficit, predicted to be £16.6m within a year and £12.7m in two years.
In a long-awaited report – which even had a special cabinet meeting arranged to discuss it last month and was then cancelled at the last minute – the authority recommends pushing ahead with the wholesale closures of council buildings.
As a result, libraries across the borough are to be closed, including the controversial decision to axe the Birkenhead Central Library which would be replaced with a modern facility at the Europa Pools site.
Also facing closure are the leisure centres at Woodchurch, Guinea Gap and Grange Road West, as well as Pacific Road Theatre and the transport museum there, along with Wirral Museum at Birkenhead Town Hall, which could also see the registrars moved and the building "disposed of".
Guinea Gap baths in Seacombe will close and could become part of a major redevelopment scheme for the area, capitalising on the views across the Mersey.
In their place the authority plans to develop 12 "multi- purpose complexes in key community locations across Wirral" to provide a range of services.
These plans include five major offices at Bebington Civic Centre, Birkenhead (probably centred around Europa Pools and incorporating a new central reference library), Liscard, Moreton, and West Kirby (in a modernised Concourse).
There will be seven smaller centres at Eastham, Greasby, Heswall, Leasowe, Rock Ferry, St James and Woodchurch.
In his report Mr Maddox said: "Wirral will have one brand new, state of the art, central reference library, probably located at the Europa Pools site.
"In addition it is envisaged that there will be 11 area libraries at the other multi-purpose complexes."
Many others facilities could be transferred into the hands of local community groups which would operate them – effectively absolving the authority of financial responsibility for them. These include 19 community and recreation centres across the borough, plus Leasowe Lighthouse, New Ferry Village Hall and Ivy Farm.
Even the number of libraries closed could yet be higher, with Wallasey Central Library listed to be retained, but with the comment: "To be reviewed as options are developed for the Liscard Multi-purpose complex."
Last night, opposition politicians were condemning the plans, and the Conservatives’ prospective candidate for West Wirral, Esther McVey, said: "Labour and the Liberal Democrats are clearly out of touch with what is happening in the communities around Wirral.
"How anyone could seriously suggest that closing Hoylake Library is a ‘service improvement’ is beyond belief.
"If their plans go through, then there is no doubt that villages such Irby and Pensby will be much worse off, while many of our community centres will also be facing an uncertain future this Christmas."
And Wallasey councillor Leah Fraser said: "If we needed any further sign of this council’s complete disregard for Wallasey, then this is it.
"Labour’s message couldn’t be clearer, ‘if you want to borrow a book, go to Birkenhead and if you want to go for a swim, go to Europa Pools’.
"Wallasey Central Library and Guinea Gap Baths are two important local facilities that are much loved and well-used. These cuts will be completely unacceptable to people in Wallasey."
Cllr Sheila Clarke in Bebington said: "These cuts are terrible News
. I cannot believe that any councillor who knows his or her community will support these cuts.
"Bebington should not be paying the price for this council’s incompetence and I am urging the two Labour councillors in Bebington to work with me to stop the closure of Higher Bebington Library."
The report says that if councillors want some replacements in the areas where existing libraries are recommended for closure "a mobile Library/One Stop Shop service could be established at a projected annual cost of in the region of £200,000".
However, the report added: "Given the council’s present overall financial position, this option is, on balance, not recommended."
Cllr Steve Foulkes said it is essential his authority carries out this review of all the council’s built assets "to ensure they are fit for the 21st Century and beyond".
And he was scathing about the complaints of opposition politicians, saying "jumping up and down and shouting will not solve the council’s problems".
He said without action council tax could "increase exponentially" and this plan will allow the authority to improve services to meet the quality people expect, in locations which suit them.
He said: "If you look at the user numbers we can adequately provide for them, and allow for an expansion if we can attract more customers."
He said the council facilities compete with private gyms and pools, while libraries are effectively in competition with bookshops such as Waterstones.
Cllr Foulkes said: "We are a two star authority and our aim is to become a four star council. Sefton is larger geographically and has eight libraries, yet is a four star council. We have had 24 libraries.
"We have maintained that as long as we can, but you either bury your head in the sand and hope these problems go away – which they won’t – or you deal with them."
He said: "By investing £20m to provide ‘better but fewer’ buildings, Wirral residents will be able to enjoy high-quality and efficient modern facilities while keeping Council Tax at an acceptable level.
"These proposals are rightly radical and comprehensive and will have implications for residents across the borough, not to mention many of our own staff.
"Through consultation and communication with all those affected, we hope to minimise any negative impact of these proposals and move towards the goal of sustainable, modern, energy efficient buildings which will also contribute to the regeneration of our poorest areas."