Northamptonshire CC’s plan to close 21 libraries has been ruled ‘unlawful’ by a High Court judge.
The proposal, a key part of an extra £10m cuts found hastily in February as the council attempted to balance its books, had been challenged by a young girl and her family who had urged the council to review its decicision.
In her judgment Mrs Justice Yip found the council ultimately made its final decision to close the libraries as a result of financial concerns, and concluded the council did not do enough to discharge its other statutory duties at that time.
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.
Councillors had originally supported a plan to allow for some of the 21 libraries designated for closure to remain open as ‘community managed libraries’, with some council funding and support.
However, after auditor KPMG issued an advisory notice and the council issued a section 114 notice in February, a decision was taken to continue with the plan to close 21 libraries but with no support or financial provision for them to become community managed libraries.
In her judgment Mrs Justice Yip said: “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.”
According to legal firm Irwin Mitchell, which acted on behalf of the complainant, Mrs Justice Yip found the council had failed to properly consider whether it would operate a comprehensive and efficient library service after the library closures had taken effect, that it had failed to discharge its duties when considering the impact upon vulnerable people under the Equality Act, and that it failed to properly consider the outcome of the consultation that had been carried out. These flaws were caused or exacerbated by the council’s decision to switch from its first option to the second one.
Mrs Justice Yip also found that the council failed to properly take into account the risk of a potential ‘clawback’ to the Department for Education if any of the children’s centres currently located in many of the libraries earmarked for closure had to be closed. In the case of Desborough library alone that ‘clawback’ figure was worth more than £300,000.
Caroline Barrett, associate solicitor for Irwin Mitchell, said: “The closure of libraries has a disproportionate effect upon children and vulnerable people and our client’s family was extremely concerned that she would not have access to the same library provision as her elder siblings. Local schools also relied upon the local library services.
“The ruling shows that the family was right to challenge the council.”
Ms Barret said the complainant “recognises that the council is in a precarious financial position” but added: “Nevertheless, this ruling confirms that all councils, regardless of their financial position, simply must comply with their statutory and common law duties.”
She also said the court had given all parties time to consider “which decisions made by the council should be quashed by the High Court and what relief should be granted. If there can be no agreement on the terms of relief, a further hearing will be listed by the court to consider next steps.”
Northamptonshire CC’s leader Matthew Golby (Con) said: “We are considering today’s judgment very carefully.
“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.”
LGC previously reported how the council is seeking to find up to £70m savings on a net revenue budget of £441m this year alone with fears the deficit could rise to £180m by 2021.