Suffolk: County libraries get a late reprieve
06:00 02 May 2011
Controversial county council proposals to stop running its library service have been abandoned, the EADT can reveal.
Suffolk County Council had planned to divest the service and hand over responsibility for running libraries to community groups, parish councils or other organisations.
The plans could have resulted in the closure of 29 community libraries if no groups took over the running of them.
However, due to the strength of feeling across the county, which resulted in a number of demonstrations in towns such as Saxmundham, Leiston and Eye, the county council has made a dramatic U-turn.
It emerged last night that the authority will retain ultimate responsibility for running libraries – although communities will have an opportunity to help run individual branches.
And while there is no guarantee that all branches will be retained, cabinet member with responsibility for libraries Judy Terry said she expected the overwhelming majority to stay open.
She said: “I really hope that all libraries will remain open, ultimately we would like to be able to see new libraries created for communities across the county.”
The libraries are set to be run by a community interest company which will be fully owned by the county council – but will include representatives of communities across Suffolk as well as councillors and officials.
Mrs Terry said this would ensure that the county retained responsibility for providing the library service – but it would enable individual communities to decide what was on offer.
She said: “The review of library services has shown how much they are valued by their communities, but it has also shown that different communities want different things from their libraries and this should allow them to develop in different ways.”
She said that involving communities in the running of the libraries would lead to a reduction in the amount of bureaucracy and should help to make savings needed by the county.
Councillors and officers have been impressed by the strength of feeling seen in towns and communities across Suffolk.
A momentum built up during the county’s three-month consultation period which finished on Saturday, April 30.
Mrs Terry said: “Actually I am glad to see how important people feel their local libraries are.
“When you look at how vocal people have been in places like Saxmundham, Stradbroke and Leiston you realise how valuable their libraries are to them.
“I would much rather have that than a kind of indifference towards the future of library services.”
It was the reaction from market towns and communities across the county that persuaded members of the ruling Conservative group at the county council to abandon the divestment plans.
The threat to library services brought out protesters on to the streets of places which had never seen marches before – and sparked a significant online campaign against the proposals.
It was the strength of these campaigns in what are seen as Conservative heartlands that are believed to have persuaded many county councillors that a change in direction was needed in last month’s group leadership contest.
Mrs Terry emphasised that the proposals that were being drawn up by the council for the future of the library service would not become official policy until they had been approved by the new cabinet. However she had spoken to Mr Bee and interim council leader Jane Storey before outlining the plans.