Councils are being urged not to shut their libraries amid a squeeze on finances, with a string of local authorities proposing cost-cutting measures to their services.
Libraries are set to reopen from lockdown on 12th April, but some councils, which had already tightened their belts in recent years, are considering cutbacks to save more money after the pandemic hit their finances. Areas including Leeds, Croydon, Lewisham and Bexley have all recently launched consultations on the future of their library service.
Cash-strapped Leeds City Council has consulted on cutting £1.5m from its customer services budget partly by “standardising” library opening hours and reducing the number of staff. The council has warned not doing this could mean no longer running all its libraries. Windsor and Maidenhead's local authority has also launched a consultation on closing four of its libraries.
In south-east London, Lewisham Council is proposing savings by turning its libraries into community hubs and initiating a hiring freeze. Nearby Bexley, meanwhile, is cutting staff numbers alongside making changes to opening hours and reductions in funding for six community-run libraries.
Laura Swaffield, chair of The Library Campaign group, said councils would be guilty of “self-sabotage” by making cuts, with the cost of their many services instead falling on other departments, all for a comparatively tiny saving.
She said “As lockdown slowly eases, it is obvious that massive unmet needs will be revealed — some urgent, some complex. Help must be accessible, at local level. And it must be expert help, by experienced staff.
“Public libraries, in effect, provide a chain of local, trusted, multi-function drop-in centres. Their cost is a tiny fraction of any council’s budget — less than 1%.”
Isobel Hunter, c.e.o. of Libraries Connected, said it was “just too early” to say how libraries would fare in the next budget round but she expected councils would need to find significant savings.
She said: “We have seen libraries prove their value during the pandemic and local and national leaders are now showing a growing recognition of how vital libraries will be to community recovery.
“We also view the Levelling Up Fund as a significant opportunity for libraries to access new support especially in the funds’ priority areas of cultural investment and town centre regeneration and we are working with libraries to help them access this fund locally. Libraries deliver remarkable value for money, costing an average of just 0.6% of council spending, and we will do everything we can to make sure that they are able to support their communities through the tough times ahead.”
Perhaps the most high profile cuts are planned in Croydon, where the local authority declared itself insolvent last year. Five out of 13 libraries could be closed as part of plans to close a huge gap in the budget.
Nick Poole, c.e.o. of CILIP, and Elizabeth Ash of the Save Croydon Libraries campaign group have published an open letter calling for the council to think again.
They wrote: “We recognise that this will be a challenging and volatile time for the council, but we would like strongly to urge you both to limit the negative impact on professional staffing to the greatest extent possible and to maintain access to library spaces, resources and expertise particularly at a time when access to IT for support, job searching and Universal Credit claims are of vital importance to your community. Libraries also provide essential support for public health, including mental health and help to combat loneliness, and will be key in supporting learners and particularly young people to catch up in their education.”
Among the concerns they raised were the effect closures would have on the high number of young people in the borough and a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged groups with poor literacy. Relying on volunteers instead of paid library staff would “undermine” what service remained, the pair argued.
A Croydon Council spokesperson said: “We value the views of local residents and anyone else interested in the future of the borough’s libraries service, which is why we decided on a two-stage consultation process to get as many suggestions and responses as possible. The current consultation phase ended on 14th March, and we will now examine all feedback received before an update to cabinet by late spring. We will then consult on detailed proposals before a final decision is made in late summer.”