Councils have been accused of seeing libraries as “soft options” and "easy targets" when it comes to deciding on budget cuts and run the risk of "undermining rights" by not fulfilling their legal duties to provide library services, campaigners have said.
Following government cuts to local authority budgets, dozens of libraries across the country are under threat as councils review their budgets before the new financial year in April, with some already revealing plans for severe reductions to their library services.
In a bid to help make £30m of savings over the next two years, Telford & Wrekin Council plans to close six of the borough's nine libraries - Dawley, Donnington, Hadley, Madeley, Newport and Stirchley. The council's finance chief, councillor Lee Carter, has blamed government funding cuts to the grant the council receives for the severe reductions of front-line services.
Meanwhile, also in the Midlands, Walsall South Council has earmarked seven libraries for closure – Beechdale, Blakenall, New Invention, Pleck, Rushall, South Walsall and Walsall Wood. Proposals will also see the mobile library service axed. A public demonstration led by MP Valerie Vaz will take place this weekend to protest against the plans.
Also seeking to make cuts, Bradford Council is planning to reduce expenditure across its library network by more than £200,000 from April 2017. The council revealed intentions for most of its 32 libraries to become community-managed in a bid for further savings, with Silsden and Wilsden libraries set to close within three years if volunteers are not found.
While Wirral Council is also considering the increased use of volunteers to operate its libraries in order to make savings of £24m for the financial year 2016/17.
And all but one of Croydon’s libraries are under threat, with Croydon Council saying extensive cuts to the library network are possible after the grant given by local authorities was cut by 56% by 2019/20.
CILIP c.e.o. Nick Poole said the cuts "undermine rights which are enshrined in the Equality Act, Human Rights Act and Public Libraries & Museums Act."
“We have a situation where our national network of libraries is being dismantled while government fails to provide the guidance that local authorities need to provide the comprehensive and efficient library services they must, by statute, provide," Poole said. "These cuts are a totally false economy – they may or may not deliver limited short-term savings but in reality they do lasting damage to local people, communities and businesses."
Poole added: "It is too easy to cut libraries because the fact they are statutory isn’t understood, explained or enforced. I urge all local authorities considering announcing cuts to libraries to put their plans on hold until there is clarity from the department of culture, media and sport (DCMS) about their legal duties to provide library services.”
Ian Anstice, librarian and founder of Public Library News, agreed that lack of direction from the DCMS is putting services at risk.
He said: "Councils are, without any doubt, seeing libraries as highly tempting targets for cuts. They know that the DCMS has not effectively intervened in any reduction to library services so far and thus the value of the statutory status of libraries is highly questionable."
Alan Wylie, public library worker and member of Voices for the Library, added: "Campaigners know that many councillors don't use libraries therefore have little or no understanding or knowledge of their true function and worth. This lack of understanding and knowledge plus a seemingly widespread ignorance of the statutory nature of libraries and the general acceptance by many councillors of the wider austerity agenda makes it easier to cut, close and divest them.
"Councils do however have a statutory responsibility to provide a 'comprehensive and efficient' service and need to start seeing these cuts as a false economy otherwise the long term damage to communities and society could be disastrous."
He added: "At the same time we mustn't lose sight of the fact that it's central government which is slashing local authority funding and the DCMS and Ed Vaizey who are failing to promote, protect and superintend the national service."
In order to better protect libraries, CILIP's My Library By Right campaign will hold the goverment to account over its legal responsibilites and call on local authorities to put all changes to library services on hold or risk breaching the law. The petition has currently amassed 5,116 signatures and high profile supporters such as writer, Neil Gaiman.
Local authorities have until the end of February to finalise their budgets.