Critics claim proposals to slash libraries may be ‘unlawful’
Council leaders have been warned “lopping off” a third of its libraries could be against the law – as critics queued up to attack the leader and cabinet member in charge during a motion of no confidence.
Essex County Council (ECC)’s consultation into the future of its library service proposes the closure of 25 libraries and possibly shutting 19 more.
Currently there are 74 – categorised in four tiers, based on demand for each.
Tiers one and two, in urban areas, are to be retained under the proposals but categories three and four could be closed if alternative solutions are not found.
Providing a comprehensive and efficient library service is a statutory responsibility of local government under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.
At a council meeting discussing the plans, campaigner Chris Pond said this could not be met under the current proposals.
“The 1964 Act says quite clearly that the service must be comprehensive,” he said.
“For all the time I have been on ECC, with 74 libraries in all, that service has been comprehensive.
“No one can challenge it. But by lopping off a third and leaving sizeable towns without a library, the cabinet member and through her, ECC, will simply put itself on the wrong side of the law. The terms of the act will not be met.
He added: “It also makes a total mockery of the consultation process because that decision has already been taken – it says so in the document.”
At a fraught meeting of the full council, in which leader David Finch and libraries cabinet member Susan Barker survived a no confidence motion brought in the wake of the plans, the administration argued falling numbers had to be addressed through “reimagining” what the service could offer.
Ms Barker, who admitted she had “no idea” about how many library staff face being made redundant, said: “There has been an enormous downward trend in people using libraries.
“This consultation seeks to reverse those trends, it looks to see what we can co-locate with our library service.”
Kevin Bentley, deputy leader of the council, added: “It’s about those tough decisions you have to take at times when you are leading an authority of this size.
“We have gone through a particular great period of austerity and this council, under the leadership of my friend David Finch, has done great things to make this one of the most leading councils in the country.
“It takes brave people to take decisions and move forward and that is what we are doing here.”