Northamptonshire County Council’s cabinet made a decision yesterday (May 14) to move ahead with a plan to only keep 14 of its 36 libraries and hand over another 22 to community groups, five of which will be given statutory protection.
The authority’s staff have been working with volunteers and friends of library groups for many months to progress plans for the libraries to remain open and run by volunteers, but with the authority insisting these new ventures pay rent and cover running costs there are concerns it could be too tall an order for some.
Speaking at the meeting Alison Richards, who is part of the 21 Group Libraries Network which formed last year when the libraries first came under threat, said: “There’s one big black hole in which lurk two major pitfalls for 17 of our 36 libraries. You are about to remove them from your statutory provision. It’s not welcomed but this is what you plan to do.
“Then there is the property pitfall. After today there will be months of negotiations. You want to assess the business plans of 22 different community organisations to satisfy your need for best value.
“There is no best value for the volunteers who have to run 22 libraries. It is ironic that the five communities that are among those most likely to be successful in doing that have been given statutory protection. I have grave fears for some of the other 17.
“Libraries have never been expensive for councils to run but what they have provided is invaluable.”
Mr Amis, who is a member of the volunteer group for Higham Ferrers library, said the building was a place of ‘vital support’ and learning for many in the town but the £19,000 per year rent wanted by NCC was too high.
He said: “The level of rent is not close to viable for a community-run library and furthermore the building has not been well maintained for many years so how could the community take on the liability for that building?”
Cllr Jane Birch also raised the issue of under-threat libraries which do not have the support of parish councils or town councils to help them pay the rent or buy the buildings from the local authority.
She said Kingsthorpe library has a school that is willing to take on the library and run it by sixth formers, but is unable under its constitution to take on the lease the authority is insisting on.
And Cllr Julie Davenport said she felt some libraries were being discriminated against because they did not have parish support. She also said there was a perception from the public that the community groups were being ‘set up to fail’. She asked the council to first of all charge community libraries a ‘peppercorn rent’ to help them get started.
Leader Matt Golby said setting libraries up to fail ‘is not the intention’ and was ‘completely wrong’.
As they do not have statutory protection if the library groups are unable to keep the libraries running then they will close.
The council has said it is making the decision for financial reasons because it cannot afford to keep running the libraries. The council is being run by two government commissioners after it effectively went bankrupt last year after years of taking funds from its reserves to cover costs.
At the meeting the cabinet member for libraries Cecile Irving Swift said the council did not want any libraries to close.
The next steps are for the community libraries to put a business case together before it is approved and the keys can be handed over.
The 17 libraries are: Higham Ferrers, Raunds, Danesholme, Long Buckby, Moulton, Woodford Halse, Burton Latimer, Rothwell, Roade, Finedon, Irchester, Wollaston, Abington, Far Cotton and Kingsthorpe, St James' and Wootton.