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Mass closure of libraries may be illegal, warns union

Thu 18 Feb 2016

A leading trade union has warned that closing large numbers of libraries across the UK could be against the law.

According to Unite, local councils are legally obliged to provide "comprehensive and efficient" library services under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.

However, data from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy indicates that between March 2011 and March 2015, the number of public libraries in England, Scotland and Wales fell from 4,340 to 3,917 - a drop of 423.

Unite believes that in light of councils' statutory obligations, closures on such a scale could be illegal.

The union has therefore called on the government to do more to safeguard libraries, such as reversing local government cuts and introducing a fair funding formula for councils.

Fiona Farmer, national officer for local government at Unite, described libraries as a "beacon of hope and practical assistance for people wishing to improve their literacy".

However, she said politicians at both local and national level appear to see libraries as "a soft target in this time of austerity".

Ms Farmer warned they could be "pushing up against the boundaries of legality if they persist on this course".

As a result, she believes the time has come to "draw a line in the sand" and prevent further library closures.

Joanna Bussell, Lead Partner in Winckworth Sherwood’s Local Government team, commented: "Libraries are at the heart of every local community and core to every Council’s ambition for the education and aspiration of its local area.
 
"We are working with a significant number of local authorities, exploring options for library services. This includes both urban and rural authorities all facing the challenge of meeting their statutory obligations with unprecedented budget cuts.
 
"It is essential that any alternative delivery model is sustainable, not just in the short term but the long term.
 
"We would urge all local authorities to consider transferring the services to newly established, locally based, not for profit organisations.
 
"Such organisation, if charitable, will deliver immediate business rate savings.
 
"More significantly, however, such organisations can operate in a more commercial, entrepreneurial way, maximising opportunities for additional income and, most importantly, re-positioning the library as a community hub.
 
"There are some terrific success stories for alternative delivery models for library services. Closure and/or relying on volunteers are not the only options.
 
"We are on standby to provide advice and support to all local authorities exploring library options."

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