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Why library closures appear parochial but could spell economic doom

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

From the Gruffalo to the very hungry caterpillar; Harry Potter to Mary Poppins – tomorrow an annual celebration of books, authors and illustrators will result in children and adults dressing up as their favourite characters.

World Book Day has, since its inception in the mid 1990s, acted as an opportunity to inspire a love of reading among the young and old.

While the way we read might be changing from holding a hardback book in our hands to a hard drive inside an electronic device, there is still a great fondness for the written word.

It is because of this fondness and desire to give children the best opportunities in life that library closures have proved so contentious for councils, especially in Northamptonshire this year.

With a section 114 notice issued and a warning from auditors that its 2018-19 budget would be “unlawful” without further cuts, Northamptonshire CC has today taken the plunge to shut 21 libraries as part of a wider package of measures aimed at saving a further £10m next year.

This comes after months of agonising over the decision from councillors amid concerns raised by members on scrutiny committees and by members of the public.

At today’s meeting of full council members were told a pre-action letter had already been submitted to the county council threatening a judicial review into the proposed cuts to library services.

Speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrat group Chris Stanbra warned the county council’s library service – 15 hubs will remain – will not be “comprehensive”.

Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 local authorities have a statutory duty “to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons” in an area.

In theory the culture secretary could order an inquiry at any time, according to the government’s website. However only one has been ordered since 1964 and that related to Wirral MBC which, at the back end of the last decade had wanted to effectively close 11 of its 24 libraries.

A local inquiry found Wirral to have been in breach of its statutory duties as it had “failed to make an assessment of local needs (or alternatively to evidence knowledge of verifiable local needs) in respect of its library services”. A government-commissioned inquiry subsequently found Wirral’s “decision to reform its library service in the manner proposed places it in breach of its statutory duties”.

Should a similar inquiry or the threat of legal action materialise in Northamptonshire, members will be hoping the proposals drawn up in October – before the section 114 notice was issued – meet the council’s statutory obligations.

As one Conservative backbencher on the council, Jason Smithers, said on Twitter today: “I’m getting the feeling that this council is bankrupt morally and financially. Possible judicial review of budget could cost more than the savings of closing a few libraries.”

The savings agreed today do not mean all is now well in Northamptonshire – far from it.

Leader Heather Smith (Con), who remains in post despite losing a vote of no confidence among her fellow Conservatives locally last night, warned more savings will need to be found over the coming weeks and months.

All these cuts to libraries, as well as all bus subsidies and a 42% reduction in funding for trading standards, will do is merely keep the wolf from the door for a few more days.

However, if the decisions taken today were uncomfortable the ones coming in the future will be even more unpalatable.

They might be necessary to balance the budget but the impact cuts such as these will have are far more wider reaching and longer lasting.

No longer having a library in your area might be one thing, but when the bus service stops as well it will make some residents question why they continue to live in the places they do.

As Manchester City Council’s leader Sir Richard Leese (Lab) said three years ago, the only way to attract and retain businesses in an area is to “have places where employees can live and want to live”.

He said: “Quality of place, housing, schools, parks, libraries – all the things we are talking about getting absolutely hammered in current spending rounds are absolutely essential to economic growth, and absolutely essential [to] creating places where people want to live.

“Having places where people want to live is absolutely essential to having companies that want to be in and grow in these places.”

The loss of a few libraries might appear parochial but the ramifications have the potential to be wider-reaching, even if a judicial review and/or inquiry are avoided.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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