Essex County Council U-turns on plans to cut a third of its libraries
- Credit: Archant
Essex County Council has dramatically reversed plans to cut libraries in the county – promising that no library will close in the next five years.
Last year, it announced the potential closure of 25 of its 74 libraries, which would affect every district in the county.
It said those at risk were facing closure due to "relatively low demand" and the "availability of other services".
A consultation was launched in November to gauge public opinion on the plans, which concluded in January.
More than 21,000 people responded, with more than 50 petitions received - with the community making it clear libraries are not just for books and computers, but a place where people can meet and exchange ideas.
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At a full council meeting today, Tuesday, July 9, the council's leader Councillor David Finch, announced radical changes to its libraries strategy, including a pledge no library would close by 2024.
The new strategy also includes developing an investment plan for libraries and looks to set up and support community-run libraries.
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Councillor Susan Barker, Cabinet Member for Customer, Communities, Culture and Corporate, said this was "a new, exciting chapter for libraries in Essex".
She said: "Our future libraries strategy has changed drastically due to what the people of Essex told us.
"I am delighted that the consultation ignited such passion for keeping the service alive.
"We assured everyone that feedback would be taken into account, and it has - all our libraries now have a future.
"This is a new, exciting chapter for libraries in Essex.
"It will be a service fit for the 21st century that is genuinely in the hands of communities and local users, who can help mould it to what they want and need.
"I look forward to sharing the full details of the strategy with the people of Essex next week."
Andy Abbott, from campaign group Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE), said he was happy to hear the council have decided to change its strategy, but added they wouldn't start celebrating until the full strategy is published next week.
He said: "We are obviously pleased to hear this news.
"This is a U-turn which was a result of people power and the power of protest. "If we hadn't have done this, things would not be changing.
"However, the devil will always be in the detail. "We know the council are still thinking of an untenable scheme for community-run libraries.
"We are pleased at this stage but won't be opening the bubbly quite yet."
UNISON Eastern regional organiser Natalie Platts praised the thousands of residents who responded to the consultation in making the council 'think again' about the proposed cuts.
She said: "It's the overwhelming strength of feeling against the Council's ransacking of our culture and our communities that's forced this climb-down today.
"But any celebrations will be brief - even if some community group can be found to take over, volunteer-run libraries just aren't good enough.
"Anyone who thinks volunteers can reliably deliver all the services our highly skilled library staff provide has spent too long in the fiction section.
"Well done to the thousands of people across Essex who have made the Council think again, but we need to push on to secure the fully funded, fully staffed public libraries we need and deserve."
The future libraries strategy will be published on Monday, July 15 as part of the agenda pack for Scrutiny and Cabinet.
It will be discussed at the Place Services and Economic Growth Policy Scrutiny Committee on July 18 before a decision is made at Cabinet on July 23.