Labour has accused the Coalition Government failing in its duty to protect public libraries, saying its legacy would be "boarded-up libraries and fewer people opening the front door, let alone opening a book."
In statements from political parties published this month in Post-Lib, the journal for the Retired Members Guild of CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, shadow culture minister Chris Bryant attacked the Government record, and laid out his own party's vision for libraries.
He said: "Public libraries are primarily managed by local councils, but the Secretary of State has a statutory duty under the 1964 Public Libraries Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service”. This places a duty – in law – to provide national leadership to the library service. This Government has failed to fulfil that duty… There are now at least 330 fewer libraries open for 10 hours or more a week – an 8 per cent drop. There are now 40 million fewer visits to libraries – a 12 per cent drop from 322 million visits in 2009/10 to 282 million in 2013/14. That’s the Tory legacy: boarded-up libraries and fewer people opening the front door, let alone opening books."
He said that Labour would "provide national leadership" for libraries, and "encourage greater collaboration and cooperation between the 151 library authorities in England, and give councils longer term funding settlements so that councils can better plan ahead, deliver savings and meet local needs."
Vaizey defended the record of the current government, saying: "The scale of library closures has been widely exaggerated. In 2014 only two static libraries closed whilst since 2010 we estimate the total number of static library closures to be just 93."
He added: "We have a very strong library service, with over 3,100 public libraries across England. In 2013/14 alone councils invested £757 million in their library services… Of course libraries have faced challenging times in recent years. We have had to take some difficult decisions when it comes to public spending but we have continued to be fair to councils, ensuring that those areas with the greatest call on their services continue to receive the highest levels of funding. In addition, we have published new guidance and advice to help councils make sensible savings whilst protecting frontline services."
Vaizey concluded that "if libraries embrace new technology, work to increase the number of activities and facilities they offer and genuinely make themselves open and welcoming to the whole community then they have a bright future ahead of them."
Liberal Democrat Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson John Leech MP said that it would help decisions on libraries to be made at a local level. He said: "This Government has had to make tough decision to balance the books, and local government has had to take its share of budget cuts. Liberal Democrats believe that decisions on keeping local libraries open quite rightly lie at a local level… We have handed over power to community groups to take control of their libraries, and run them for and by the local people. We intend to do the same after the next election, tempering the other parties in national and local government and helping public groups protect the things which are important to them – instead of telling them what matters from the top down."
Geoffrey Bowden, a Green Party councillor and chair of the Economic Development & Culture Committee Brighton & Hove City Council, said: "libraries up and down the country are falling victim to the coalition’s austerity measures. Local authorities of all political hues have been closing them at an alarming rate. So often the justification given is that the number using them has fallen to such a degree that they are no longer economically viable. However, what is often left unsaid is that there is a direct correlation between diminishing footfall and restrictions to opening hours – another oft used cost cutting measure… Green policy is to position libraries as vital community hubs and keep them open."
Post-Lib failed to get a response from UKIP, however, spokesperson Gawain Towler said in a statement to The Bookseller last month: "UKIP deplores the fact that so many of our public libraries are under threat of closure, or have been closed.The Conservative-led Coalition Government has imposed a tough Local Government Finance Settlement on councils. The Local Government Association has stated that over this Parliament, local government core funding will fall by 40% and councils will have to make £20 billion of savings. Unfortunately, some local authorities will often cut front-line services, rather than reduce the numbers and pay packets of their senior staff, some of whom, earn more money than the prime minister."