The government is to investigate the reduction of Barnet Council's library provision following complaints and protests from campaigners, a step that could lead on to a local inquiry.
Libraries minister John Glen has told Barnet Council leader Councillor Richard Cornelius in a letter that the department of digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) is treating the representations made by Save Barnet Libraries campaigners Emily Burnham and Richard Strang as a formal complaint. This will see the DCMS investigate whether the council is fulfilling its statutory duty to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" library service, as set out in the Public Libraries Act of 1964.
Changes to Barnet's library provisions, decided last year, have seen reductions in staff and opening hours. Many functions have now been replaced by automated gates and self service machines and the 14 libraries are only open for a maximum of 15 hours a week.
Glen's letter to the Barnet council leader follows protests by library campaigners and schoolchildren outside of the DCMS in Whitehall last week.
Campaigner Burnham said told the Hamstead & Highgate Express: “We’re pleased that DCMS has recognised the seriousness of the issues at stake, and we now call on Barnet Council to take this opportunity to reconsider what it is doing. We are also very pleased that the protest last week clearly worked, eliciting a response from DCMS. It is children and young people who are going to be most hard-hit by these changes, so it’s great that this children’s protest has paid off.”
Following the outcome of the investigation, Secretary of State Karen Bradley could decide to intervene or to hold a local inquiry. A decision is expected later in the month.
A spokesperson for the council said changes to its library provision provides a "modern service" whilst delivering savings.
“We have received the minister’s letter and will work closely with officials from the Department for Culture Media and Sport to provide more information on the transformation of the libraries service," a spokesperson said.
“Extensive consultation with our residents demonstrated a clear desire to keep all of our libraries open. Whilst delivering savings, the changes to our service will provide a cost- effective, modern service, keeping all 14 libraries in the borough open, as well as our home, mobile and digital library resources. A key part of the new library service offer is self-service opening at ten library sites and to date; over 11,000 residents have registered to use this new service.
“At the remaining four sites, key partner organisations and community groups have been operating a Partnership Library offer since the beginning of April.”
Earlier this year, it was revealed that 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.