Fears have arisen that vulnerable people are losing vital support because they cannot get face-to-face help from the Walsall Council. A petition was created asking the authority to reopen the First Stop Shop, which had been closed since the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, and has attracted dozens of signatures.
Prior to the closure, residents could visit the Civic Center to speak directly with staff when they had problems in areas such as city taxes and housing. Despite the easing of restrictions, the First Stop Shop has remained closed and people are increasingly being directed to access services online, leading to concerns that people are not getting the help they need in a time of crisis.
Walsall Council said it is improving its website and digital services, while those without computer access will be supported at the county’s libraries. The petition created by Parveen Rehman said: “As the cost-of-living crisis deepens, we urge Walsall Council to take immediate steps to reopen in-person counseling at the First Stop Shop to help signal the support people desperately need. “.
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Among the people who signed it, Dana O’Connor said, “Many people find it difficult to talk on the phone and/or no online access. implement measures to protect personnel.”
Alan Harrison added: “The availability of an in-person service is important in a neighborhood like Walsall. Many people don’t have computer access or skills.
Paddock Ward Counselor Waheed Rasab asked the authority to reopen the service after being contacted by residents. He said: “I’ve had residents call me who are upset that the First Stop Shop has remained closed and wants to reopen.
“People ask us why the Civic Center is closed. They say they need it open because not everyone is equipped with modern technology. There are elderly retirees who don’t have a computer, or even if they do, they don’t know how to use it.
“A few weeks ago, an OAP in my ward called me to ask me to help him renew his disability badge because he didn’t know how. So I took my computer and did this. People need a place to go downtown. so they can get the exact help they need.”
Shaz Akhtar of the Walsall Unite Community Branch, who supported the petition, said: “The First Stop Shop is an important service for residents to inquire about available services in a face-to-face contact. Consultations and service requests possible without the need for referral.
“Although support is moving online, many people in Walsall do not have access to online help. With the cost of living rising, this service is vital for residents to ask what services are available to support them during these difficult times.
“We hope the council will reconsider and provide this vital service to the diverse community it serves. The local council needs to step up and support.”
Councilor Gaz Ali, holder of the Walsall Council Customer Engagement Portfolio, said: “During 2021, the council asked residents across the neighborhood about how and where they would prefer to access advice and services after their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. This feedback was used to develop a new Customer Experience Strategy, which was endorsed by the Cabinet in December 2021.
“In response to this feedback, the municipality has already begun to invest significantly in improving the quality of our website, online services and phone support. Customer engagement work has also identified that some vulnerable, elderly and digitally excluded residents will continue to need of frontline support on a face-to-face basis.
“As a result, top-notch advice, digital assistance and free Wi-Fi are available at the Walsall Library on Lichfield Street (across the road from the former First Stop Shop and adjacent to City Hall). frontline and digital assistance at the other six libraries in Walsall, community centers and several other trusted partner locations, as part of our ‘Walsall Connected’ campaign.
“We are developing plans to modernize the Civic Center and in this sense we intend to introduce a welcoming space in the building, which will help to signal the support available. The only downtown location is that our vulnerable and elderly residents said they would prefer to access advice and support in locations closer to their homes, to keep travel time and transportation costs down.”