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Government to scrutinise library closure decisions

Mon 19 Dec 2016

Planned library closures are to be more closely scrutinised by the government.

Libraries minister Rob Wilson recently met with officials from Swindon Borough Council after it confirmed two-thirds of libraries are to be closed down, and will discuss planned closures in Lancashire with council officials in the near future.

The minister wants local authorities to explain why the axe is so quick to fall on libraries when they are trying to save money, the Telegraph reports.

According to Mr Wilson's spokesman, councils will be required to prove "they have explored all options, including looking at mutuals, before they make significant cuts to their library service".

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals has hailed the move, saying it is right that the minister is "taking a robust stance" on this issue.

Nick Poole, chief executive of the body, has urged Mr Wilson to use his full statutory powers, as the 1964 Libraries Act gives him the authority to investigate and overturn closure decisions.

Mr Poole also called on the minister to work with both Swindon Borough Council and library staff to "provide the best possible outcome for people and communities" in the area.

The authority wants to close ten of its 15 libraries in order to cut the library service's annual budget from £2.6 million to £1.1 million.

While the central library would be manned for 47.5 hours a week, staff at the remaining four would work for just 15 hours a week.

Mary Martin, cabinet member for communities at Swindon Borough Council, has defended the decision, stressing it is "retaining our most well-used libraries" and "keeping a core of our trained and qualified staff".

She also confirmed that the authority is looking at the possibility of keeping some of the remaining libraries open by setting up a mutual structure and asking local people to get involved in managing them on a voluntary basis.

Ms Martin said Swindon Borough Council is "very keen to move to a trust or mutual model subject to cabinet approval" and has an agreement in principle from the libraries minister "that we can have some assistance in getting this in place".

Lancashire County Council, meanwhile, is on Mr Wilson's radar following its announcement that it wants to close 28 out of its 73 libraries as part of an effort to cut its outgoings by £200 million over the next five years.

Deputy leader of the authority David Borrow insisted he is happy for the government to scrutinise the plans more closely.

He said the changes it is making will "contribute towards the huge savings the council needs to make, while ensuring that people still have good access to library services through an extensive network across the county".

Mr Borrow added that a modern library service does much more than provide books in buildings.

This, he said, is why Lancashire County Council plans to "invest in and extend the reach of our mobile libraries, and meet the increasing demand to access digital resources, to ensure the council continues to meet its statutory duties".

Joanna Bussell, Lead Partner in Winckworth Sherwood’s Local Government Team, commented: "Councils are facing unprecedented financial challenges.
"We are working with all our local authority clients to explore alternative delivery models to safeguard vital public sector services including library services.
"Everyone recognises the invaluable role of libraries and the contribution they make to the education and attainment of every local community.
"Libraries, however, need to be fit for purse for the twenty-first century.
"They also need a delivery model which is dynamic and entrepreneurial.
"We would urge all local authorities to consider transferring library services to a social enterprise.
"If charitable, that social enterprise will deliver immediate financial savings and also be in a position to attract new sources of funding not available to the local authority or a private sector operator.
"Sustainability will be key to the future of libraries and this will require libraries to expand and diversify responding to the needs of their local communities.
"Charitable Trusts have a proven track record in not only safeguarding library services, but also innovating, developing and inspiring.
"Excellent examples include Awen Leisure in Bridgend, Viva City in Peterborough and Libraries Unlimited in Devon."

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