Campaigners fighting to save 21 Northamptonshire libraries from closure have won their battle after the High Court has ruled that the in-crisis county authority made the decision unlawfully.
The judgement by trial judge Justice Yip was handed down by Judge Worcester at Birmingham this morning (August 14) and now means that Northamptonshire County Council will have to look again at its decision to close the doors on 21 of its 36 libraries. However this does not mean the authority cannot ever close the libraries.
The campaigners’ winning of the judicial review is a huge spanner in the works for the authority which is currently reducing its services to the statutory minimum in an effort to save up to £70m this year.
The victory is being celebrated by campaigners from across the county who had been outraged by the authority’s plan to shut down and possibly sell off the majority of its libraries.
The authority stood to save several hundred thousands each year in annual running costs and could have pocketed £3.25m if it had sold off the 12 threatened libraries that it owns.
Chairman of St James’ Residents Association & Friends of St James Library Graham Croucher said: “We welcome this judgement from Justice Yip which is a vindication for the overwhelming majority of the 6,000 people who responded to the consultation.
“This is a common sense people’s victory.”
Alison Richards, chartered librarian and director of the 21 Group Libraries Network, said: “While we have cause for celebration, the fight does not end here.
“We will be keeping a close eye on the council’s plans for the libraries now that the review is over and will continue to campaign for them to remain a vital statutory service for the people of Northamptonshire.”
The council’s decision to close the libraries had been taken to a judicial review by two Northamptonshire residents, a Desborough infant and a Northampton man called Mr Connolly, who were funded by legal aid.
Two different legal teams argued the case over two days at Birmingham High Court last month (July).
The judgement detailing the points of law that the authority failed on, will be published shortly.
Law firm Watkins & Gunn represented Mr Connolly, a user of St James’ library in Northampton, who was fighting to save 20 of the 21 libraries.
As part of their case the lawyers argued that NCC failed to properly consider their duty to provide libraries following their change of mind from the original preferred option, which was to allow communities to run the libraries with its support.
They also argued that the almost broke county council failed to take into account the impact the closures would have on the provision of children’s services which were housed in many of the affected libraries.
13 of the threatened 21 libraries have children’s centres housed within them.
Partner at Watkins & Gunn Michael Imperato said today: “We are pleased that the judicial review into the closure of 21 libraries has deemed that Northamptonshire County Council did not follow due process in the decision to close the libraries under threat.
“Councils have a difficult job in allocating funding to the many services they provide, but we argued that they must still properly balance and weigh up the consequences of closing important services such as libraries according to the law.”
A statement from the Desborough infant’s mother said: “We are absolutely delighted with the judgement.
“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.”
Lawyer Caroline Barrett, from Irwin Mitchell which represented the Desborough family, 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.
“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.
“Our client recognises that the council is in a precarious financial position.
“Commissioners have been appointed to run the council’s executive functions by the Secretary of State and a raft of further cuts was announced by the council in a highly charged meeting last week.
“Nevertheless, this ruling confirms that all councils, regardless of their financial position, simply must comply with their statutory and common law duties.
“This is in principle with the rule of law.
“The council has duties to its local residents and it must continue to make decisions in a lawful manner.”
For the past few months voluntary groups and local parish councils have been putting together business plans to enable them to take over the under threat libraries and run them independently.
However at the start of this month (Aug 2) in another twist to what has been a long drawn out saga, the council said it had put on hold the process after meeting with community groups and realising more time was needed.
It also said the issue of a second 144 notice, warning that it may not be able to balance its books at the end of this financial year, was a factor.
Liberal Democrat county councillor Chris Stanbra, who has been campaigning to save the closure of Danesholme library in Corby, said: “I want to congratulate the campaigners for taking this to judicial review.
“They stuck to their guns and they were proved right.
“But what happens next I fear will be less fantastic.”
The councillor says he expects that when the authority goes back to consult and look at the decision again, then it may choose to close a further seven libraries leaving only the eight large county libraries remaining.
The authority will have incurred big legal bills to fight the judicial review and may having lost the legal battle, have to pay costs.