Northamptonshire County Council’s plans to fund libraries with ring-fenced money is legal and ‘appropriate’, according to its chief executive.
The county council is proposing to keep 14 libraries under council control, with a further 22 becoming community-owned in new proposals.
A judicial review win for library campaigners has helped to bring forward the new proposals to retain a number of libraries which were previously at threat of closure by the authority. A consultation has started today on the proposals, and will end on February 6.
The scheme includes roughly £1 million being ‘invested’ into the libraries through Section 106 funds. The ring-fenced funds are allocated to capital projects for infrastructure, but they cannot be used to run the library services themselves.
This had led to confusion amongst some councillors as to whether the funds could be legally used on libraries, and chief executive Theresa Grant outlined at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting at One Angel Square how they would be used in response to a question by Labour councillor, Jane Birch.
Theresa Grant said: “Just to be absolutely clear, the amounts laid out in the report are monies receipted for appropriate use - that use is set out and agreed. It cannot be used to run the libraries, but it can be used to improve provision within those libraries, such as improving the buildings for extra space.”
The original plans to scrap 21 libraries were thwarted in August by a judicial review that found the council’s decision making had been ‘unlawful’. But Mrs Grant, who started as chief executive just a month prior in July, said one of the first changes in approach she had implemented at the authority was to re-evaluate its attitude towards libraries.
She said: “When I came here I was very surprised by the previous approach to our library provision, and asked for that to be changed prior to the judicial review. I want to retain as much as possible, and that’s because I’m a champion of libraries. It’s why I started a second review, but ultimately I’m still bound by statutory rules such as best value tests. And that’s why I have to make sure that we are fulfilling these tests for public value.”
Council papers asking the cabinet to put the new proposals out for consultation state: “We have recognised the value of the library service as a community hub, and have engaged extensively listening to local communities and partners and we are really pleased to put this proposal forward to transform Northamptonshire’s library service to ensure it is sustainable for the future.”
The future of eight of the proposed 22 community-owned libraries remains unsolved though. These are Long Buckby, Burton Latimer, Finedon and Irchester, and Abington, Duston, Far Cotton and St James in Northampton.
Five of the 22, including Earls Barton, will continue to have statutory funding while under community ownership, which means the libraries would revert back to the council if the community venture collapsed. The proposals will save the authority £543,000 per year in running costs.
Mrs Grant added: “All the groups who have expressed an interest in running a library have met with library officers, and I commend them for coming forward, because we could not keep them open without them.
“We have invested heavily in this and have identified some money in the Stabilisation Plan to see it implemented properly. We will hand hold until community groups are comfortable in running them.”
She added that the county council was also working with Northampton Borough Council into the possibility of a new library in Weston Favell in Northampton.
She said: “We have been working with Northampton Borough Council to look at a community portal and hub. It’s in very early discussions and we want to make sure it’s feasible, and we have submitted a bid for funding towards a feasibility study.”
Councillor Cecile Irving-Swift, county council cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “At the heart of this proposal is the fact that we’ve worked with some wonderful community groups who clearly have a passion for books and libraries.
“At this stage these are simply proposals and what we need now is for people to have their say on what they think of these plans.”