HOME Secretary Charles Clarke paid a surprise visit to Accrington on Wednesday - and blasted Hyndburn Council over the loss of the borough's neighbourhood wardens.
The 12 wardens, who tackle problems of litter, juvenile nuisance and anti-social behaviour in Hyndburn's four most deprived wards, are being axed because the local authority cannot afford to pay them.
Accrington resident Debra Stevenson, who recently left Prime Minister Tony Blair speechless in a TV debate, quizzed Mr Clarke about the wardens' fate and asked why the Government could not continue to fund the scheme.
Mr Clarke, who met four wardens during his visit to the Globe Centre, said Hyndburn Council had always known the Government cash would taper out and it was up to the authority to find alternative funding for the scheme.
He said: "Most councils in the country have been able to make the transition. I think at the end of the day it is a local authority responsibility."
Mr Clarke said that many councils had found the community wardens were saving them cash on insurance for public buildings by cutting down on vandalism and anti-social behaviour.
He argued it was not up to central government to step in and hand out cash to local authorities which had "failed to face up to their responsibilities".
During the visit Mr Clarke met Hyndburn MP Greg Pope and new Rishton councillor Claire Hamilton who, at 21, is believed to be the youngest councillor in the country.
Part of her election manifesto was to extend the neighbourhood warden scheme to Rishton in a bid to tackle problems such as juvenile nuisance.
Mr Pope said: "I accept Hyndburn Council has had financial difficulties but it has failed to face up to its responsibilities. I feel very strongly about the warden scheme and am not going to let it go without a fight."
But Hyndburn Council leader Peter Britcliffe dismissed the Home Secretary's visit as "a political stunt" and said he had not been given an opportunity to discuss the issue with him, having only been informed of his visit an hour beforehand.
He said: "You do not have to be a mathematician to see that Hyndburn Council cannot afford to pick up the bill for the wardens, especially with the Government threatening to cap us if we overspend.
"I would very much welcome the opportunity to meet Charles Clarke to discuss the situation, but I didn't get close to talking to him. The Government seems intent on using this as a political pawn. Today was more about 5 May than putting wardens on the streets.
"I really would have welcomed a serious debate. I have met the police, Fire Brigade and county council to try to get funding for the wardens but it has not been forthcoming."
- Six of the wardens were issued with redundancy notices last December, though two were subsequently reprieved. The others are expected to lose their jobs next year.