Kirklees Council leader Cathy Scott laid the blame for millions of pounds of cuts firmly at the door of the Government and insisted the council had “no choice” but to go ahead with them.
At an emotionally-charged meeting of the council’s ruling Cabinet, councillors agreed to press ahead with consultation to shut two dementia care homes, three leisure centres and a main library and to mothball Cleckheaton Town Hall indefinitely.
The council must come up with savings of £47.8 million by February 2024 in order to balance the budget for 2024-25 – or face having to declare itself effectively bankrupt and hand over the keys to the Government.
Under the plans the council wants to close Castle Grange care home at Newsome and Claremont House in Heckmondwike to save at least £1.3 million a year, moving 46 residents and threatening the jobs of 128 staff.
They also want to shut Colne Valley Leisure Centre at Slaithwaite, Dewsbury Sports Centre and Batley Sports and Tennis Centre at Howden Clough.
‘Asset rationalisation’ could mean the 131-year-old Cleckheaton Town Hall being shut along with the historic Batley Library building. Batley library would move into Batley Town Hall and Dewsbury Library would move into the Walsh Building next to Dewsbury Town Hall.
In her opening remarks Clr Scott said: “These are not the kind of choices that I came into politics for.
“We have £1 billion that’s been taken out of our budget through austerity. The central government funding system means that Kirklees Council loses out to the wealthy Southern councils to the tune of £200 million a year.
“Setting a balanced budget isn’t something we do to keep accountants happy, it’s a legal requirement of this council. If we don’t, the consequences for people, services, staff and council taxpayers could be much worse. That’s why we have to make these hard decisions.
“It shouldn’t have to be like this and Kirklees needs fair funding but, in the absence of all this funding, we need to deal with the reality and deliver financial stability for all the services.”
Later in the meeting Tory councillor Josh Sheard (Birstall and Birkenshaw) accused the Labour administration of a “major attack on public facilities across North Kirklees” and said he’d collected 7,000 signatures on a petition against the closure of Batley Sports & Tennis Centre.
A clearly angry Clr Scott retorted: “It’s worrying to me because you can feel the passion of the community in this room about decisions we’re having to make because of this Government.
“It’s not a choice. It’s not a raffle, signing petitions. We are not playing games. It’s not ping-pong. We are not scoring. This is going to impact on our communities and young people for the future.
“We don’t want to make these decisions, we are being forced into it by this Government. It’s a travesty.”
The meeting also heard from Lee Riley, the UNISON union rep for Kirklees Active Leisure (KAL), the crisis-hit trust which runs leisure centres on behalf of the council.
She said the district was suffering from “13 years of Tory cuts” which had “run our public services into the ground.”
She added: “The closure of leisure centres will be a disaster. Once they are closed it will be hard to see them ever re-opening.”
Ms Riley said the council had pumped millions of pounds into KAL and now it was time for the council to take back control of leisure centres.
Green group leader Clr Andrew Cooper, who represents Newsome, said he and the other ward councillors hadn’t been consulted over the proposals for Castle Grange and many questions were unanswered in the council report.
He asked why there was only a 57% occupancy of the two care homes and questioned if the council had been running them down. He said more information was needed on income, not just costs, and suggested the private sector could take on Castle Grange, which was purpose-built in 2006.
Clr Cooper said if council finances improved in the next few years the decision to shut the homes could be premature.
The Cabinet rejected Clr Cooper’s plea to defer the report and agreed to go ahead with a six-week consultation before a final decision is made by Cabinet on December 12.
Meanwhile, public consultation on the leisure centre closures will be live on the council website from Friday September 29.