A High Court has ruled that Northamptonshire County Council's bid to close 21 libraries was unlawful.
Mrs Justice Yip gave the judicial review verdict at Birmingham High Court on Tuesday (14th August), saying the council acted "unlawfully" when it voted through the decision to close 21 of its libraries in February. The move, a bid by the Conservative council to cut costs after declaring effective bankruptcy, would have left only 15 libraries remaining in the county.
In her verdict, Justice Yip said the council had failed to properly consider whether it would be able to operate a comprehensive and efficient library service, as required by law, after the closures had taken effect.
Originally it was proposed some of the 21 libraries allocated for closure would remain open as ‘community managed libraries’, but when the council's auditors KPMG said its proposed budget was unachievable in February, it radically changed tack, choosing instead to close the libraries altogether.
Justice Yip concluded: "The difficulty, in my judgment, came after the KMPG Advisory Notice. That Notice plainly called for a response. A lawful budget had to be set. There can be no objection in principle to the defendant taking a revised approach motivated by the financial position. I appreciate the real pressure the Cabinet and the defendant’s officers were operating under at the time. However, this did not relieve the defendant of the need to act lawfully."
The ruling means the council cannot close the libraries for the time being.
The verdict was reached after a young girl and her family challenged the council's decision to shut the libraries. Solicitor Caroline Barrett argued on their behalf the closure of libraries would have had "a disproportionate effect upon children and vulnerable people" and her clients - a child who cannot be named for legal reasons, and her family - were "extremely concerned that she would not have access to the same library provision as her elder siblings". They also noted local schools relied on its services.
"The ruling shows that the family was right to challenge the council. Many other local residents have also supported the judicial review proceedings, and all the residents who came forward and urged the council to review and change its decision are vindicated by this ruling," said Barrett.
The child's mother said: "We are absolutely delighted with the judgment. We have fought hard against the proposed unfair cuts to our much loved library service. The closures would have had a devastating impact on families like ourselves, but also on the most vulnerable people within our community.
"The libraries offer us so much more than just books. They offer residents access to the relevant district council’s one-stop shop, blue badge and bus pass renewal, children’s services and plenty more services that residents rely on.
"It is well-known that the council is in a difficult financial position but it simply did not think about the impact of these cuts, and the effect that they would have had on local communities."
Libraries and information association CILIP, which had previously called the plans "careless and unreasonable" in a formal letter of complaint to then culture secretary Matt Hancock, celebrated the win too. However, it urged national and local government help crisis-hit councils "as a matter of urgency".
"We welcome the High Court ruling that the approach taken by Northamptonshire County Council to close 21 libraries was unlawful. It sends a clear message that financial pressures do not release local authorities from their statutory duty to provide comprehensive and efficient library services," said Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP.
"However, increasing numbers of local authorities are warning that they face bankruptcy. It’s essential that Northamptonshire County Council receive the emergency support they need, and that a fair funding settlement for all local authorities is reached as a matter of urgency. Every community has the right to benefit from a quality local library service and we will continue to work with National and Local Government to ensure that the necessary funding and support are available to guarantee this."
Campaigner Tim Coates took a view it had been "obvious" the library service in Northamptonshire was "in serious crisis" for the past five years.
"It has been obvious for the past five years that the library service in Northamptonshire was in serious crisis. The figures the council reported to CIPFA - if only anyone had looked properly at them - made plain the extent of the mismanagement. The libraries were already seriously underfunded, and usage was falling dramatically, but at the same time, the council was charging a huge overhead for its own management costs. That information should have rung alarm bells in all corners - both locally and nationally," he said.
He went on to argue local council management was "not properly scrutinised" in general, making a case for "total root and branch reform of local government". He continued: "The public are not well served at all. If only the matters in Northamptonshire could be used as a lesson to begin major reform, then some good could come from the case in hand. Otherwise we are just watching another part of the predictable demise of public libraries in England."
While the decision means the council can't close the libraries for the time being, it remains to be seen whether they will be taken over by independent groups or stay open. The council last week backed "radical cuts", battling a budget shortfall of 70m for the current financial year.
Commenting on the verdict, Conservative Cllr Matthew Golby said the council was "considering today’s judgement very carefully" and was "committed to finding a way forward that is satisfactory and achievable for all parties".
"We are considering today’s judgement very carefully," he said. "We are pleased that the Judge has recognised that the council’s public consultation and equality impact assessments were indeed lawful, and that she acknowledges the severity of the council’s financial challenge.
"As we announced earlier this month, we had already made a decision to pause the proposed changes to the local library service for further consideration and are continuing to work closely with community groups, partners and interested parties within the wider context of the council’s budget recovery programme.
"The Judge has noted that the county council is continuing these discussions with the community groups. In light of this, she has instructed that the legal parties use their best endeavours to agree all outstanding issues.
"The county council is committed to finding a way forward that is satisfactory and achievable for all parties."
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