Chains cash may help save services

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COUNCIL bosses could use insurance money set aside to replace stolen civic chains to give an under-threat library and three community centres a stay of execution.

West View Library and Community Centre, in Miers Avenue, plus community centres in Jutland Road and Seaton Carew could stay open for the next nine months using the £46,000 budget set aside to replace the deputy mayoral chains, which were stolen in a raid on the Civic Centre on New Year’s Day night in 2008.

The vice-chairman and his lady’s chains, which are more than 100 years-old, have never been found and numerous police investigations have proved fruitless.

Instead of replacing the chains next year, senior councillors sitting on Hartlepool Borough Council’s cabinet committee have recommended that the budget be used to give voluntary sector groups time to come forward with viable plans to keep the centres, which were under threat of closure, open via an “asset transfer” arrangement.

The idea, part of plans to bridge a £5.6m budget deficit, is set to go before the full council for approval on Thursday night.

The alternative proposals to give centres a reprieve, which were put forward by the Hartlepool Labour Group, will be funded using the £46,000 payout plus uncommitted funds from other budget savings.

Hartlepool Borough Council needs to slash its £90m budget by more than £20m over the next four years with 86 council employees being made redundant next year.

Town Mayor Stuart Drummond stressed that the centres need to be transferred “as soon as possible” to remove the financial burden on the council.

Mayor Drummond said: “Cabinet has always said that if somebody is willing to take one of these centres over then we would listen to that.

“It needs to be a transparent process to give all voluntary sector groups the chance but it needs to be done quickly.

“If that means not buying replacement jewellery to give that time, then so be it.”

Councillor Chris Simmons, leader of the Labour Group, said the proposal was “achievable, reasonable and would support the community”.

Labour councillor Jonathan Brash warned: “We don’t just want to hand over buildings that will be empty in three months. They have to be viable.”

The original proposal to close West View Library, plus cuts to library stock and children’s activity sessions, would have saved £235,000, while closing the community centres would save £51,000.

Cabinet members did endorse other budget proposals, which include scrapping the Dial-a-Ride service, which provides transport for the elderly and disabled, to save £209,000 and to axe the H1 hospital bus service, between the University Hospital of Hartlepool and University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton, to save £85,000.

Councillors also endorsed plans to reduce the community pool grant, which supports the voluntary sector, by £50,000 instead of the original proposal of £134,000 and to fund redundancies through the £1.7m transitional grant, which is a one-off grant given to 38 local authorities to help them manage cuts.

Members also recommended that council tax be frozen next year in order to qualify for a £1m Government grant, equivalent to a 2.5 per cent rise council tax rise.

The full council meets at the Civic Centre at 7pm.