WIRRAL’S Labour leader says councillors who voted against balancing the council’s books were being "reckless" and "financially irresponsible" with the borough’s finances and the lives of the people who relied on vital services.

Councillor Janette Williamson added that to do anything other than make the difficult decisions in this year’s budget locally would have left Wirral at high risk of being run from London, with Commissioners called in to make the choices on what to cut, without local knowledge or accountability.

Wirral Council was issued with two hard-hitting government reports in the run up to the budget setting, which has been a drawn-out process in recent years as the council has no party in overall control, so decisions must be made cross-party.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy report laid out its findings just before Christmas, saying that cuts had to be made and concluding: “The council will need to develop a more realistic asset disposal strategy, focusing on reducing the number of libraries, leisure centres, golf clubs, and public conveniences.”

Meanwhile the External Assurance Review on the council’s governance criticised councillors for not working together or making hard decisions in order to stick to an ever-decreasing budget, saying: “There is an urgent need to see across the political groups strong and very public political leadership and priority to the requirement to build financial stability.”

Cllr Williamson said: “We have lost £220m from our budgets over the last decade due to Conservative austerity, and every year it gets harder to set the budget, with less to go round and increasingly stretched national services. But the reports we were given were very clear - we needed to balance the books and we had to do that together. So it was disappointing to see a group of Green, Liberal Democrat and independent councillors vote against the balanced budget.”

In the many meetings leading up to setting the budget, Cllr Williamson said there was no indication from the Liberal Democrats and Green Party that they planned to vote against the balanced budget.

“We had no idea that they would pull such a reckless stunt, in fact there was consensus from all parties for the bulk of the £18m worth of savings,” she said.

“They are fully aware of the expectations placed on us by central government but have instead voted against setting a legal budget in order to chase a few votes in May. They have now undermined confidence in Wirral Council at the top and risked everything we have worked so hard to save.”

Where similar situations have existed in other parts of the country, the government has taken away decision-making from local councils and brought in civil servants to make the tough decisions.

Cllr Williamson said: “The last thing anyone wants is to reduce what we offer our residents, so we have spent hour after hour trying to find solutions, and in some cases we have found ways to keep services running.

“We put together a series of successful amendments which mitigated some of the harshest cuts and we are still continuing to explore every avenue and find ways to save more. We are also listening to residents at every step of the way, in public consultations and on the doorstep.

“That’s helped save public loos, scrapped parking permit increases and school crossing patrol and thrown a lifeline to Woodchurch Leisure Centre, taking the £330,000 that was earmarked to pay for demolition and putting it in a fighting fund. We’ve given facilities such as libraries longer to put community business cases together for community asset transfers, and made clear that there will be no building on our green belt and green spaces.

“We even put £113,000 into a ring fenced pot to help residents with fuel bills by turning down the heat in council buildings, and saved the climate emergency fund - to keep funding in place for severe weather events such as recent storms.

“Voting against this budget put all that in jeopardy. What does this handful of councillors think will happen if we refuse to set a legal budget - that the government will just give us more money and we can carry on as we were?

“No, as we have seen in other areas, they will send in commissioners – unelected civil servants– to make the cuts for us, without the local knowledge or accountability that comes from being a councillor here and living as part of our communities.

“It’s no use the other parties putting their heads in the sand and hoping this goes away. The reports couldn’t be clearer – we need to work together, whatever our differences, and find ways to make every penny work for our residents. Anything else would be financial irresponsibility and could leave the people of Wirral with far fewer assets and services.”

And, responding to criticisms that Labour and the Conservatives worked together on elements of the budget, she was very clear.

“With no overall majority, and with two reports saying we have to work together, we have tried to collaborate with every party to make this work, for the sake of the people of Wirral,” added Cllr Williamson.

“Every amendment we have been able to agree has helped the people of Wirral, and the other parties would do well to remember that when they choose to vote against things that will help the residents they represent.

“But, while we have tried to work closely with all parties and independent councillors, as the report tells us we must, our philosophies are a world away from the Conservatives, locally and nationally.

“Local Tories have done nothing to challenge their own party chiefs about the way Wirral has been, and continues to be, treated. They even voted against a motion proposed by me in 2017 which called for an end to austerity and fairer funding for Wirral.

“We haven’t heard a peep out of them criticising their own government’s suggestions.”