THE new leader of Burnley Council has vowed to protect the vulnerable of the town in the challenging times ahead.
Coun. Julie Cooper spoke to the Express about her pride at Labour’s recent local election victory, which saw the party wrest control back from the Liberal Democrats.
But the Bank Hall ward councillor said there would be tough decisions ahead as she attempts to steer the council through the choppy waters of the current economic crisis.
She did outline several positive plans she hopes will be verified in July – free parking in some town centre car parks on Saturdays and a new extra dog warden for the borough.
Born in Nelson, the former English teacher and mother of two was first elected to Bank Hall seven years ago and has been Labour leader for three years.
“There is no doubt that Burnley faces the greatest economic challenge in its history but it is not all doom and gloom.
“Our top priority will be to protect the most vulnerable and needy people in society from these savage cuts of the Coalition Government.
“I first joined the Labour party because I wanted to see a fair world. I see my role as an opportunity to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. It’s what drives me on, gets me up in the morning and to residents’ meetings on cold and wet nights.
“I also want to help our traders and bring more shoppers back to Burnley. That’s why we plan to make some council-run car parks free in the town centre on Saturdays to help give our economy a boost.
“We will also increase by 10% the Ward Opportunities Fund, which is used by councillors in their own ward in respect to residents’ concerns.”
Coun. Cooper said the council’s other main priority would be to attract better jobs to the town.
She added: “We knocked on thousands of doors before the election and the issue of jobs was the overwhelming priority for most.
“We will be setting up a lot of job creation projects as well as trying to make Burnley an attractive area for businesses.”
Burnley Council will have to do this in the midst of further expected cuts in July. Burnley received 28% less funding from central government in 2010, a move which Coun. Cooper says “cut the town adrift.”
The Housing Market Renewal Fund of £12m. a year to pay for Elevate has now stopped as has funding for Working Neighbourhoods and Jobs for the Future.
Coun. Cooper was particularly scathing of the Government’s housing renewal cuts which has left regeneration in Burnley “half done”.
She said: “It really distresses me to think there are children walking around streets in Burnley which are still boarded up because the money has stopped before the project is finished. We will try to find money somewhere to complete this important job. We won’t find out the latest cuts until December, but we will always try to protect frontline services and jobs.
“We have publicly said that if job cuts have to happen we will start at the top. We will not make changes for the sake of it but we will look at everything.”
The Burnley Labour group tabled a budget amendment when in opposition two years ago to reduce the number of directors and heads of service on Burnley Borough Council, which was defeated at the time but later enacted.
Coun. Cooper said it would be unfair to speculate on whether there would be further cuts or changes in the management structure of the council but said it was “inevitably going to be tough.”
She added: “We will know more in December, but fairness is our byword and we will consult fully with everyone if the time comes.”
Coun. Cooper also reflected on the demise of the British National Party, which lost its last remaining seat in the election.
“I am really pleased that the BNP no longer have a presence in Burnley. They were a dark cloud that’s been sitting over Burnley for the last 10 years. The voters have shown that the BNP are not Burnley’s legacy for the future.”
The former teacher, who was defeated as Labour’s candidate in the General Election in 2010, found time to thank her family for their support.
Her husband Brian sold his chemist’s business before the General Election, and she also said how proud she was of their children David (26) who works in the Cabinet Office in Westminster and daughter Anna (23) who works as a barrister in Leeds.
She said: “My children grew up in Burnley and have done well for themselves. I hope they can show that young people in the town can do well. We have some fantastic new schools, college and university campus. The challenge now is for Burnley to emerge as a high-skilled town with a great reputation.”