The government says it ‘is minded’ to hold an inquiry into Lancashire’s library closure programme – even though some of the buildings are in the process of being sold.
Lancashire County Council announced last year that 34 of the county’s libraries would close after the council was hit with severe funding cuts.
The move was met with outrage by local community groups and MPs, including Fylde’s Mark Menzies who has been campaigning vigorously against the closures.
Now Government Culture Minister Karen Bradley is considering ordering a special inquiry into the controversial closures.
This week her minister for Civil Society – Rob Wilson – has sent a lengthy letter to County Council leader Jennifer Mein advising that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is “currently minded to order” an inquiry to investigate whether the cut-back service will “offer a comprehensive and efficient library service”.
But before making a final decision Secretary Bradley is asking the council to provide answers to 19 questions.
She has also invited library users or anyone interested to comment.
Last year the cash-strapped council, which maintained it had to close many of its libraries because of lack of government funding, consulted on plans to close libraries. In September the cabinet agreed to cut libraries from 73 to 44 static library and five satellite sites. It retained six mobile libraries, the home library, school and prison services and an online library service comprising e-books, e-audiobooks and reference service. Local residents groups and interested groups were encouraged to consider taking over the running of the libraries.
Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace and local resident Frances Hendrix complained to the Government that the council was failing to meet its legal requirement to provide a comprehensive and efficient service as outlined in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.
Fylde MP Mr Menzies, who has campaigned against the closures, said: “From day one it was clear Lancashire County Council was playing politics with library services on the Fylde coast.
“The county council desperately needs to change; just this week we have seen the number of people earning more than £100,000 at the authority rise by a third to 32 - the third highest in the country.
“So while Fylde residents watched their libraries close and Lancashire County Council blame cuts, the authority chose to pay eight more of its staff more than £100,000, than in the previous year.
“As a result of my campaigning, and being in constant touch with ministers over the past six months, I’m delighted but not surprised that an initial investigation has brought the Government to the conclusion that something is very wrong about the libraries situation.”
Mr Wilson met with council leader Coun Mein and the council’s chief executive in January and it is acknowledged that the county council has already provided “a significant amount of information regarding the changes” nevertheless the Secretary believes criticisms received still raise questions about service provisions.
To this end she has asked a series of detailed questions about the consultation and decision-making process, the consideration of alternatives including running libraries as mutual organisations, and the impact of the proposed changes on affected groups – including the elderly.
Mr Wilson said: “Library changes should be challenged in circumstances where significant doubts exist about the robustness of the future service. We regard libraries as very important to communities and are absolutely committed to helping them to prosper”.
Coun Mein said: “The minister has asked for further information before finally a decision for recommendation whether or not to have an inquiry.
“At this stage we will furnish him with all the information he has requested and still have confidence actually we’ve done the right thing.”
She said she believed the consultation process had been “pretty robust”.
She continued: “I’m rather surprised it has taken this long and I’m sure they know there are elections in three weeks’ time.”
The Gazette was unable to contact a spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.
Jo Turton, chief executive of Lancashire County Council, said: “We are confident that once the Secretary of State takes a look at the additional information we will be supplying, she will decide that a public inquiry is definitely not needed.”
•Comments should be sent to the Ministerial Support Team, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 100 Parlimanet Street, London, SW1A 2BQ or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5pm on June 9. Comments should be entitled “Lancashire Library Services- Minded to Representations”.
Which libraries are affected?
The plans affect seven libraries on the Fylde coast. They are:
Where are the others?
Across Lancashire, there are 34 libraries under threat from the council’s plans to cut costs.
As it stands, no borough is spared from the cuts, although are some are more badly affected than others. The closures are spread as follows:
Fylde – 4
Burnley – 4
Pendle – 4
Wyre – 3
Hyndburn – 3
Ribble Valley – 3
Rossendale – 3
What are people saying?
Coun Andrea Kay helped put together community bids for the libraries in Thornton and Cleveleys.
Those proposals, by Thornton Gala Committee and Blackpool-based community interest company UR Potential respectively, are yet to be decided by County Hall.
Coun Kay welcomed hope of an inquiry into Lancashire’s library decision.
She said: “We need an inquiry into what happened. I hope the Secretary of State goes through with it.
“What happened needs to be looked into. These libraries should still be open.
“No thought went into the impact on the communities. There needs to be an inquiry and those responsible need to be held to account.”
Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard said he was ‘pleased’ by the latest development.
He said: “I still believe a public inquiry is justified and I suspect Labour will struggle to answer the 19 specific questions raised by the minister or defend their strategy.
“This is a real triumph for people power. We now have three chances to save the libraries, a public inquiry, the Conservatives pledge to reopen if they gain control of Lancashire County Council, and the community bids led by Andrea Kay and Emma Ellison.”