THE opening salvos have been fired in a major political clash over the running of Wirral libraries.

Only two years ago, plans to shut 11 libraries across Wirral were quashed following a huge outcry and a public inquiry.

Now Wirral Labour group - back in control of the local authority after 12 months of rule by a Tory/Lib Dem coalition – claim massive job losses have left libraries “virtually empty shells.”

The coalition oversaw 1,300 voluntary redundancies which it said were necessary to balance the budget after a Government decree compelling millions of pounds of cutbacks.

Council leader Cllr Steve Foulkes revealed that the local authority was currently advertising for staff to replace some of those redundancies.

He said: “The reality is that we inherited a very difficult situation. "We lost a lot of staff and a lot of expertise. "But we are committed to providing the best services within resources.

“We are doing everything in our power to run an efficient library service. We will be talking to staff to see how we move forward.”

Councillor Foulkes added: “The picture painted by the previous administration before the election is not the reality of the situation.

"We will be open with the public and do our level best to maintain services. It will mean working smarter and being more agile with the workforce.”

Conservative leader Cllr Jeff Green said: “With their previous track record it would appear Labour are softening up the public for any possible reduction in the quality of service that the libraries currently offer.

“It is very worrying that Labour really haven’t learned anything from past experience.

"It is most disappointing that they try to pretend that there are no resources. I received absolute assurance from the director of finance that staffing levels would be right.”

He said that in the 12-months of the Conservative-led council more than £1m had been invested in emergency repairs to library buildings and the range of library books had been expanded.

“Our budget for the year, which froze council tax, included an additional £240,000 for new technology in libraries and work to get more people reading,” he said.

However, the Labour group insists it is “literally impossible” to run Wirral’s library service with the “skeleton” staff remaining.

Councillor Chris Meaden, cabinet member for culture, which covers the library service, said she was coming to terms with the enormity of what Labour had inherited.

She said: “Fifty library staff have now gone and we are left with what is just the shell of a service.

"We are going to have to be as creative as possible to find ways of providing a quality service with far fewer staff.

“Unfortunately, there is very little money available. We will be scrabbling round to find whatever small sums we can to allow us to invest in new technology and make full use of the staff available by bringing services together.”

Councillor Meaden added: “They say every disaster creates an opportunity and we are really going to have to seize that opportunity.

"The staff we have remaining are loyal, well motivated and determined to provide the best possible service for Wirral residents.”