Threatened with closure, Raunds Community Library trustees await town council decision

"We have done all we can."

Monday, 10th January 2022, 10:19 am
Updated Monday, 10th January 2022, 10:20 am

Dedicated community volunteers determined to keep open a town library have pleaded for vital support from their local councillors as their temporary agreement is ended.

Without financial support or backing, Raunds Community Library could close its doors at the end of March to the hundreds of users and myriad of groups who use the hub as a base.

Saved from closure by an agreement with Raunds Town Council, volunteers kept the service going after a consultation with town residents. With the dissolution of the county council and the country in the grip of the pandemic the library's agreement of a ‘Tenancy at Will’ could now be terminated.

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L-r Glenvill Greenwood-Smith, Peter Wathen, and Phil Grace

Even though the trustees running the charity for the community say they have done everything asked of them, they say still feel Raunds Town Council - who hold the purse strings and all the cards - do not appear to want to support them.

Phil Grace, Raunds Community Library trustee, said: "We believe we have done everything that we have been asked to do by the council. At present we are waiting on the town council to come up with the goods.

"They want us to run it as a business, and we do what we can to raise revenue but it is a service.

"The library is so important to the community. It might not be important to all of the people all of the time but its services are vital for children and their carers, for older people and vulnerable people."

Raunds Library was built in 1976

Saved from closure after Northamptonshire County Council's swingeing 2017 budget cuts, Raunds was one of 21 county libraries that was left to either be run by the local community or shut.

After a community meeting at which Raunds Town Council heard the strength of feeling to keep the library open, a group of volunteers agreed they would take over the day-to-day running of the library - a ribbon cutting ceremony was held in October 2020.It was hoped that the town council would purchase the building from Northamptonshire County Council to ensure the library remained open.

As agreed, the newly formed Raunds Community Library Trust delivered their business plan to the council that was accepted.

After the change from two-tier to a unitary council a re-valuation of the library was made and its price tag increased from £170,000 to £320,000.

Library users can borrow books and access numerous groups that use the space

Due to the new valuation councillors chose instead to lease it from the local authority and then sublet it to the trust volunteers - Raunds Town Council then formed a 'Library Working Party' liaison group but because of the Covid outbreak and change of councillors due to elections, it has met only twice.

Library trustee Peter Wathen, a former mayor of Raunds, said: "We would all welcome constructive discussions leading to the continuation of the library. We want to work in cooperation with the council.

"Obviously they have issues. They haven't been back to speak to us since September 2019.

"I accept that the world has changed but the library is more than just books. It's okay for those people who can afford books for their children but we offer them for free.

There is a special local history section in the library

"We have the potential here to offer all sorts of activities for all age groups."

At the end of December Cllr Helen Howell, North Northamptonshire Council' s executive member for sport, leisure, culture and tourism - with responsibility for libraries - and also a Raunds town councillor, sent a letter to Mr Wathen to inform the trust of the unitary authority's intentions.

Cllr Howell wrote: "Following on from our meeting on July 22 this year (2021) to discuss the way forwards for Raunds Library, I made it clear that we were happy to continue to support the Library Community Group to occupy the library premises and operate the library under a Tenancy at Will.

"This arrangement was granted as an interim measure and during this time NNC retain control of the premises and of course, bear all property and associated building costs.

"I know that you have been working on an updated business case for the running and sustaining of a Community Managed Library that will need the full backing and financial support of Raunds Town Council, I hope that piece of work is nearly complete, and you are in a position to make a proposal to Raunds Town Council soon.

"I must stress, as I did when we met that it is vital that you maintain a good working relationship with the town council. You have every opportunity now to convince them that you are in a strong position to make this community library a viable proposition and assure them that by investing taxpayer’s money you are able to offer a sustainable project for the council that offers best value for their taxpayers.

The library replaced the former arrangement of two rooms in the town hall

"NNC can only go so far in supporting the Raunds Library as the Needs Analysis, previously conducted by NCC, demonstrated that this library is not required as part of the statutory library provision.

"This means that NNC must treat this library in the same way as all the other Community Managed Libraries.

"Sadly, this means that if there is no viable business case, potentially this library may have to close. We have already seen this happen with Higham Ferrers and Far Cotton libraries.

"Taking all of the above into account, the position of the council is that if no viable business case can be agreed with the town council by March 31. 2022, then, regrettably the short-term tenancy agreement will be terminated, and other alternatives may be considered in consultation with the town council.

"I know that this is not what you wanted to hear, but I am still hopeful that a successful partnership with the town council can be established which will lead to the creation of a sustainable Community Managed Library. It is now up to you to make that case."

Trustees say that while they have been waiting for the Raunds Town Council Library Working Party to reassemble after the May elections, the library has remained open to serve the community.

As well as lending books, the library hosted groups including 'knit and knatter', children's activities, community choir, Raunds Gardening Club, Raunds and District History Society, sessions for childminders with children and groups for poetry, creative writing, Mahjong and Scrabble.

Mr Grace said: "For a long term future we need the building to be purchased either by the town council or a benefactor - we're not proud and we wouldn't turn down financial help.

"I fear that if we close we shall never reopen.

"The Tenancy at Will arrangement will cease with effect from March 31. It is this which gives the trust the ability to operate the library in the absence of any formal, long-term arrangements.

"Unless Raunds Town Council comes up with a plan to purchase or lease the building, the library will close at the end of March.

"The trust recognises that the town council must approach any funding arrangement with care and undertake due diligence."

Annual running costs of the library currently are approximately £20,000 a year. Groups pay to hire the rooms and use some of the facilities but the £140,000 from Section 106 development money set aside for the Library cannot be used on running costs, only for 'improvements'.

Glenvil Greenwood-Smith, another trustee and former Conservative county councillor, said: "In the four years since the trust was formed the town council has done two things - added a 29.6 per cent precept to pay for the library in response to the town's decision - and they have given us notice.

"At the bottom of this is the old Conservative ideology that this should be run as a business. It's a service not a business."

A spokesman for North Northants Council said: “Following a Needs Analysis by Northamptonshire County Council in 2018, 15 libraries were identified as required to fulfil the council’s statutory duty.

"In order to maintain as many libraries as possible across the county, but at the same time achieving financial savings for the council, the remaining 21 libraries were offered out to become Community Managed Libraries. The cabinet decision of May 2019 stated that if a viable option for a community managed library could not be found for any library, then it would result in the library closure.

“Community groups were invited to submit a business case to demonstrate the viability of their offer, including sustainability of volunteer numbers and financial sustainability.

“As an interim measure to maintain the library facility in Raunds, the Raunds Library Community Trust have been running the library on a volunteer basis under a Tenancy at Will. During this time NNC retain control of the premises and bear all property and associated building costs.

“Representatives from NNC and the Raunds Library Community Trust met in July 2021 and agreed that the trust would work up an updated business case for the running and sustaining of a Community Managed Library, which it is recognised will need the full backing and financial support of Raunds Town Council.

"The town council are currently awaiting this proposal which needs to demonstrate that a community run library in Raunds is a viable proposition and will offer a sustainable project for the council that offers best value for their taxpayers.

“No decisions have yet been taken and the town council will be discussing the library as an agenda item at their next meeting on January 11.”