Suffolk: County in spotlight as library changes noted by parliament

RADICAL changes to Suffolk’s libraries have been endorsed by a committee of MPs who have provided a report on services across the country.

The House of Commons’ media and culture committee today publishes a report on the future of library services.

It warns that some councils have introduced changes which risk them failing to maintain services in line with their legal requirements.

Councils must be given clearer guidance about the requirements on them to provide libraries so that they do not leave themselves open to costly judicial reviews.

There have been reports of up to 600 library closures across England as councils struggle with a 28% fall in income between 2011/12 and 2014/15, although ministers insist the figure is much smaller than that.

The select committee said today that councils were often insufficiently aware of the requirements on them from the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.

The committee took evidence from the Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) set up to run Suffolk’s libraries – which has resulted in none being closed.

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It said: “We will be very interested to follow the development of the IPS model for library provision in Suffolk. Again, it relies heavily on the goodwill of volunteers, but it has the advantage to the local population that the county council retains overall responsibility for the service.”

Suffolk library campaigner Abby Barker gave evidence to the committee on behalf of “Voices for the Library.”

She told the committee: “There have been consultations that were basically, ‘If you do not step forward and run your libraries, they will close.’

“People were not asked, ‘How and when do you use your library? How could we improve it? If we closed earlier in the week and it meant we could open at the weekend, how would you use it?’”

Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey was on the committee at the time the report was prepared. She said members were keen to monitor how this county’s library service operated.

She said: “We certainly saw the kind of structure we have in Suffolk as one that could be used by other library services.”

Judy Terry, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member responsible for libraries, said: “The future of all of Suffolk’s libraries is secure. That is something I am immensely proud and pleased to be able to say.

“We’ve seen councils elsewhere in the UK forced to close libraries or reduce opening hours in order to balance the books. The Suffolk model is the complete opposite.

“We’re determined to give Suffolk’s library service a sound foundation for future growth and I welcome the committee’s recognition of that.”

The committee urged the Government to provide up-to-date guidance on what is expected of them.

Committee chairman John Whittingdale, an Essex Conservative MP, said: “At the moment councils appear to be somewhat in the dark about what is expected of them and are making decisions which are being overturned by judicial review.

“This is an expensive, undemocratic and generally unsatisfactory way of making policy. Councils need to be given the support and advice they need to consult locally and develop a service that meets the needs of the local community and complies with their obligations.”