Southampton Council accused of political point scoring over libraries

Southampton Council accused of political point scoring over libraries

Conservative MP Royston Smith has accused Southampton Council of making a “political point at the expense of constituents” by axing five of its libraries.

On Tuesday night (18th August), the council approved plans to shut five libraries in the area in a bid to save £286,000 unless community groups came forward to run them.

The MP for the Southampton Itchen Constituency, Royston Smith, has accused Southampton Council, run by Labour, of closing the five libraries as a tool to make a “political point at the expense of his constituents,” adding that they could “easily be saved.”

Many councils across the country have targeted libraries for closure in a bid to save money after their funding has been cut by the government.

Royston told The Bookseller: “Libraries are more than buildings that house books, they are community hubs. Libraries in Southampton are relatively inexpensive and with minimal organisation working with other bodies who face the same financial challenges they could easily be saved and indeed enhanced.

“One of the most well used libraries which is facing closure needs just £52,000 per year to ensure its long term survival. Instead of looking for solutions, the Labour Council are content to axe this well used community facility to make a political point at the expense of my constituents.”

In response to Smith’s accusation, Satvir Kaur, Southampton cabinet member for communities, culture and leisure, said: “It is not political point scoring, it is stating facts. The facts are we have had a lot of cuts under this Tory government. We are already looking to make £90m in savings and (the Chancellor) George Osborne is making 40% further cuts which is absolutely huge, so changes have to be made. It is really important that residents see this in that context.”

Kaur said she thought it was important that the libraries had a “sustainable” future, which didn’t involve council funding.

She believes community groups will take on the management of all five libraries, based in Cobbett Road, Burgess Road, Millbrook, Thornhill and Weston libraries next April.

Kaur said that following a public consultation “70% of people supported community-led libraries.” She added: “We are not just going to dump libraries on residents, we will be providing a community package which will include book spend and IT access and support, among other things.”

Kaur also said that “third sector parties” had expressed an interest in running the libraries and she envisaged the five libraries slated for closure would instead be run by a combination of volunteers and charities.

However, according to Laura Swaffield of the Library Campaign, Southampton’s city council’s decision to close libraries is just “another nail in the coffin of what used to be a coherent national service”. She believes that the council’s plans to make these libraries volunteer-led will lead to a “bitter, demoralised, exhausted ‘community’ that hasn’t the time, money or the skills to run it.”

“The bizarre thing is that Southampton is claiming this grim process is a proven success,” Swaffield said. “Well, in Lewisham's 'community' libraries some very odd things have happened, and book issues have fallen off a cliff. In Sheffield these libraries are just now struggling into being, with no evidence of success or anything else.”

A Southampton resident and regular user of Burgess Library, Sarah Docktree, said she was “deeply saddened and angry” that a more creative solution could not be found to allow the council to save the money.

She told The Bookseller: “The effect on our local community will be huge. Libraries provide a safe place where everyone is welcome, they promote access to facilities out of reach of many, and they place inherent value on a love of learning - something surely we should not be destroying or curtailing.”

Southampton also plans to close its mobile library as part of the bid to save money.