Essex library campaigners are warning community groups could face an “unsustainable burden” of nearly £50,000 a year if they choose to run a local library service - and are calling on more to withdraw their offers to run local libraries.
Last month protest group Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) accused Essex County Council of closing libraries “by stealth” after they announced handing over parts of the service to community groups.
The council had originally proposed closing 25 out of its 74 facilities but later backed down. However, the local authority is still pressing ahead with plans to hand many of the county’s facilities to volunteers.
SOLE has now sent out an information pack to local and parish councils around the UK warning community groups running libraries face an "impossible job".
Using figures obtained through FOI requests, the pack compares Prettygate Library’s annual premises and acquisition costs of £48,085, exclusing staff, with the grant of £18,000 offered by Essex County Council over three years.
SOLE said at least four out of 80 groups who have submitted Expressions of Interest (EOI) to run local libraries have since retracted their offers. SOLE alleges Coggeshall Community Group felt pressured to submit an EOI after Essex County Council ignored requests for a meeting. They have since withdrawn their offer.
SOLE spokesman Andy Abbot said: "Community groups are starting to realise it would be an unsustainable burden to not only run a library but house it as well, with just an £18,000 grant over three years from the council. After that so-called 'community libraries' would be left to run the lot without support. It would be their job to raise all the money, buy every book, pay every bill, find every volunteer.
“The purpose of our information pack is to ensure every single parish or town council or community group thinking of volunteering to run a library, knows they no longer have to come forward as a last resort to save their library.
“They should also be aware of what an impossible job they'd be taking on, not only having to fully staff and run the library with little or no support, but house it as well. We urge any group that has submitted an EOI to withdraw it.”
The information pack also details concerns over volunteers’ running libraries instead of trained staff and the requirement for volunteers to go through Disclosure and Barring Service checks.
A spokesman for Essex County Council said: “We have listened to what Essex people told us in the consultation and the final strategy reflects this.
"We will work with our communities, employees and volunteers to ensure that we create a modern library service that is fit for the 21st century, whilst also continuing to explore the opportunities that innovative technology affords and being open to new and creative ideas.
"We have heard that libraries are not just about books or computers – but that they are spaces too for people to meet, learn and exchange ideas. And we have heard and seen the passion of communities that want to keep a local library. So, we have changed the strategy.
"We will invest in the library service to create new vibrant, modern spaces in council-run libraries in towns, villages and suburbs across the county. And we will work strenuously with local people to set up community-run libraries and provide funding and support to help make them a success.
"We are convinced that there are better ways to run the service and by working with communities we can keep a library service in every current location. The passion and energy of local people can also revitalise library services and community spaces, bring communities together and help tackle social isolation and loneliness. So, we will keep all libraries open while we work together to transform the service. We are still concerned about the declining use but believe a combination of council-run and community-run libraries offer the best hope to reverse the trend.”
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