A council has been accused of ‘acting like communist China’ for suspending a loyal librarian of 34 years.
Maureen O’Bern, 58, says she has been punished by Wigan council, Greater Manchester, after raising concerns about the £130million redevelopment of The Galleries shopping centre.
In social media posts, Ms O’Bern, who worked at Leigh Library, south east of Wigan, criticised the involvement of Beijing Construction Engineering Group International (BCEGI), a state-owned Chinese firm.
The council hopes to build a new 150-room hotel, 464 homes and a multimedia centre with a cinema, ten-lane bowling alley and indoor mini golf as part of the Galleries 25 project, a joint venture partnership between developers Cityheart and BCEGI.
Maureen O’Bern, 58, (pictured) says she has been punished by Wigan council after raising concerns about the redevelopment of The Galleries shopping centre
However, Ms O’Bern says she has serious concerns about UK-based BCEGI due to China’s human rights record, in particular its crackdowns on protests in Hong Kong and the persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province.
She said: ‘I’m worried about Chinese investment in our infrastructure. I don’t think they should be buying up our towns.
‘With investment, you get influence and power. I don’t want that from a totalitarian state that doesn’t respect human rights.
‘The council say it will be good for the town and it will bring in money. I love my hometown and I want the best for Wigan.
Artist’s impression of redevelopment of Wigan town centre. Ms O’Bern says she has serious concerns about UK-based BCEGI due to China’s human rights record
Wigan council signed a deal with Cityheart – as the main contractor – and BCEGI – as sub-contractor – to deliver the project back in December
‘I want redevelopment but I want it to be done ethically. The council says it stands in solidarity with oppressed people but then does a deal with a regime that has an awful human rights record.
‘The issue of Chinese investment needs to be addressed. I think we are being very short-sighted.’
A public consultation period on The Galleries redevelopment ended earlier this week ahead of a final planning application, which is expected to be submitted this month.
The proposals also include a new market hall with traditional stalls, modern retail units, co-working spaces, small offices and a contemporary food hall.
Wigan council signed a deal with Cityheart – as the main contractor – and BCEGI – as sub-contractor – to deliver the project back in December.
Ms O’Bern, who stood in Leigh as a pro-Brexit candidate at the 2019 general election, claims she tried to raise her concerns about the redevelopment internally but was ignored.
Ms O’Bern, who stood in Leigh as a pro-Brexit candidate at the 2019 general election, claims she tried to raise her concerns about the redevelopment internally but was ignored (pictured)
As a result, she says she decided to take to social media.
When a complaint was made to the council about the posts, Ms O’Bern says she was told she was under investigation.
She was later told she was being suspended for ‘bringing the council’s reputation into disrepute’ and escorted from the library while she was working.
‘I had an unblemished record before this,’ she explained.
‘I’ve won awards and I’m not a troublemaker.
‘I’m upset. I put my life into that library.
‘They say I’m not being punished, but I was escorted from a building I have worked in for 34 years.’
Ms O’Bern said she was aware her contract did not allow her to criticise the council online, but she felt compelled to speak out about her concerns.
‘I’m not just knocking the council for the sake of it,’ she said.
‘I feel so strongly about this issue, I will not be backing down.
‘When you see something you think is wrong, you should be able to speak out with losing your job.
‘I’m not just an employee, I have paid my council tax in Wigan all my life and should have a say.
‘They are suppressing freedom of speech.’
Since being suspended, Ms O’Bern says she has received ‘a lot of support’, and intends to organise a public protest against the development.
James Grundy, the MP for Leigh, has offered his support to Ms O’Bern by writing a letter to Wigan council’s chief executive, in which he accused the authority of ‘acting like communist China’.
He wrote: ‘My opinion is that the view expressed by Maureen is not controversial and would be held by many, if not the majority of my constituents.
‘It is one thing for the council to do business with communist China, which the Labour administration of the council has the right to do, however much I might dislike it, given the Labour majority on the council.
‘It is entirely another thing for the council to act like communist China, and punish those who hold dissenting views, especially when those views may be held by the vast majority of the public at large.’
A Wigan Council spokesperson said: ‘It would not be appropriate for the council to disclose or discuss employment matters, however we can advise that this is a long standing matter that is being investigated in line with our internal policies and procedures.’