The government is considering holding a public inquiry into Lancashire's controversial plans to shut 28 of its libraries - the first time it will have intervened in library closures since 2009. It is also formally considering a letter of complaint about Swindon Council's plans to axe two-thirds of the town's libraries.
Libraries minister Rob Wilson has sent letters on behalf of Culture Secretary of State Karen Bradley to the representatives of Lancashire and Swindon councils informing them of the government's next move this week.
The first letter to Jennifer Mein, leader of Lancashire County Council, states that the Secretary of State is "minded to" order an inquiry to establish whether the council's plans to close 28 out of the region's 73 libraries will fulfil the council's duty to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" library service.
The letter comes after Wilson met with Lancashire County Council as part of an investigation into the plans. The visit was instigated by an official complaint from Tory MP Ben Wallace and local resident Frances Hendrix, who called for the government to intervene in the closures.
Before taking the decision to intervene the Secretary of State has requested further information from the council and also invited further representation from library users and other interested parties. The deadline for submissions is Friday 9th June.
Mein, the Labour leader of Lancashire Council, told the LEP: “At this stage we will furnish [the government] with all the information requested and still have confidence we’ve actually done the right thing.”
Hendrix has told The Bookseller that she was "pleased" the government is considering intervening, although added that it has been "some months since [she] first complained".
She said: "This is good news, but Lancashire County Council has already closed a number of libraries and sold some of the buildings, with more to go. Hopefully this DCMS letter will delay and maybe stop the rot. I am pleased that at last the minister has decided to consider intervening though it is some months since I first complained. The real issue is that I believe that the council is failing in its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient service for all who need it."
Meanwhile, Wilson also sent a letter to David Renard, leader of Swindon Borough Council, detailing the concerns of a number of residents about the council's plans for the library service.
In December, Swindon Council's scrutiny committee passed plans to close 10 out of 15 of the town's libraries by the end of August 2017 in order to deliver £1.5m worth of savings by 2020. The controversial plans have been strongly criticised by headteachers, campaigners and the shadow culture minister Kevin Brennan.
The letter confirms that the council is treating the representations from the residents as a formal complaint that Swindon Borough Council is failing to carry out its duties relating to the public library service as set out by the 1964 Libraries Act.
In response to the letter, Cllr Renard said: “We understand that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) needs to look into the issues raised in the representations they have received, and we will co-operate fully with their enquiries. The issues raised with DCMS were fully considered through the consultation that supported the development of the Council’s Libraries Strategy and we will continue to implement the strategy in accordance with the timescales approved by cabinet.”
Campaign group Save Swindon Libraries has welcomed the letter.
Sarah Church from the group told The Swindon Advertiser: “This letter from the minister is welcome, although it has taken some time to arrive. It is very welcome, and indeed urgent, that an inquiry will be held as to whether five libraries on reduced services can constitute a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ for this expanding town.
“The minister leaves it to the leader of Swindon Borough Council to decide whether to carry on with the proposed changes, some of which have already happened in the form of reduced staffed hours across all the libraries, while campaigners and library users would strongly urge the council to halt the changes until the inquiry is complete. To blithely carry on regardless is a reckless potential waste of public money: to bring back reduced or terminated services may cost a lot more than continuing to fund our much-beloved library service.”
Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, the library and information association, told The Bookseller it was "positive" to see the DCMS taking a "more robust position" on library cuts. However, he urged the department to take action after sending the letters.
"The Secretary of State’s interventions in Swindon and Lancashire cannot just be a bureaucratic exercise. The most important issue they must consider is whether local people will receive high quality library services that provide an investment in skills and the local economy,” he said.