Northamptonshire Council is 'failing in its legal duties' with library closures

Northamptonshire Council is 'failing in its legal duties' with library closures

Libraries body CILIP has branded Northamptonshire County Council’s plan to cut 21 libraries as “careless and unreasonable” in a formal letter of complaint to culture secretary Matt Hancock.

Following the Council’s decision to close 21 libraries, which was voted through last week, CILIP has sent a formal letter of complaint to the Secretary of State, arguing that the council will fail in its duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service if the cuts are implemented.

CILIP alleged the council has failed to meaningfully consult on its decision, has undertaken an inaccurate equalities impact assessment, and has failed to act appropriately on the financial advice it has received. The libraries body has also called for an urgent national enquiry into the proposals.

In the letter, Nick Poole, c.e.o. of CILIP, said the council's planned library service "cannot in any sense be construed as consistent with a reasonable definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service".

Poole went on to say that the council presented a binary option – that libraries should be either retained as a whole in the statutory service or "spun out" entirely to independent services - and did not consider the option of a community-managed service supported by professional staff within the statutory service.

According to the letter, the local authority was advised that the financial modelling it used to inform its decision about changes to the service was flawed and that the proposed service reductions would not meet the financial targets used to justify them. It argues that the council appears to have failed to take into account the costs of closing libraries and that it has therefore "failed in its primary duty of fiscal responsibility in respect of its statutory service".

Further, Poole argued that the manner in which the Council reached its summary decision despite financial advice received from KPMG and others is such that "they may be construed as acting in a careless and unreasonable way in respect of the statutory library service".

The letter also highlighted that the financial conduct of the Council is currently under independent review commissioned by Sajid Javid MP, which, alongside the council's decision to close 21 libraries, and the manner in which the decision was made, constitute "reasonable grounds for serious doubt or uncertainty over whether the Local Authority is (or may cease to be) complying with its legal obligation to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service".

A spokesperson for Northamptonshire County Council said: “We are aware of the letter sent on behalf of CILIP to the Secretary of State. We await contact from the Secretary of State and will respond accordingly.”

Gill Furniss MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries, has also written to Hancock to express concern about the future of the library services, and Corby and East Northants MP Tom Pursglove has said that he is considering asking the secretary of state to investigate the council’s decisions.

In her letter Furniss urged the secretary of state to "use the full powers at [his] discretion to ensure the residents of Northamptonshire receive the quality of services they are, under statute, entitled to", and has called him to “intervene and establish a formal inquiry as a matter of urgency.”

Furniss also urged the DCMS to provide a "clear and transparent definition" to all local authorities in England and Wales about what constitutes a "comprehensive and efficient" library service.

It was recently revealed that a number of Northamptonshire's libraries had been slashed as part of the drastic Section 114 emergency spending controls put in place at County Hall earlier this month, with many libraries only opening for one day a week. The libraries have now been offered a small reprieve and will now open for three days a week.

A spokeswoman for the council said: “We have reviewed staffing arrangements at libraries as part of the ongoing spending control panel process which we introduced as part of the Section 114 notice. This notice restricts all expenditure above and beyond statutory services and safeguarding vulnerable people without explicit approval through the agreed process. This means very difficult decisions are having to be made on an ongoing basis as we seek to meet the in-year pressures on our budget.

"It has now been decided that we will look to staff libraries above the levels introduced earlier this week. We will aim to ensure every library in the county can open at least three days a week. Clearly this will be dependent on availability of temporary staff."