Decision to close Lancashire libraries was ‘predetermined’, letter claims
The government is ‘minded’ to order an official inquiry into changes to library provisions in Lancashire which saw 29 libraries closed by the council, raising concerns that the authority made the decision before it had fully consulted residents in the local area.
The culture secretary, Karen Bradley, had previously said the government was investigating complaints about the closures of the libraries, but today’s news confirms that it is very likely that there will be an investigation into the council’s actions.
In a letter to leader of Lancashire County Council (LCC) Jessica Mein, civil society minister Rob Wilson said that the secretary of state believed that there had been a “failure” by the authority to carry out its duties in delivering library services for residents.
Before taking the decision to launch a further inquiry, Wilson asked the local authority to send further information about the consultation process that could aid the inquiry.
The letter went on to describe that the council had not provided residents with an effective, comprehensive library service, and would be investigated by the government. “The secretary of state is therefore considering whether it is necessary to order a local inquiry into the provision of library services in Lancashire,” Wilson wrote.
The minister also raised a number of criticisms of Lancashire’s ability to provide a library service, arguing that the county had failed to explain, analyse or properly justify its proposals.
“The consultations in January and May 2016 were undertaken without any serious intention to take into account representations that put forward alternatives to the LCC’s proposals to close libraries and the decision was predetermined,” he added.
There were also concerns raised that LCC had made its services less accessible for residents, especially the old and frail. “The closure of particular libraries will create hardship for many library users particularly the elderly, who will now be required to use public transport to access an alternative statutory static library,” Wilson added.
Finally, the minister revealed that the department was looking into criticisms that the county’s proposals did not take into account planned increases in population for certain communities in the county. “The criticisms suggest that this would mean that the demand for library services in these areas is likely to rise and therefore justify a greater need for a council static library in these areas,” he concluded.
Lancashire had already been hit with bad news in February, when it was revealed that two councils had withdrawn their support from its proposed devolution deal, reducing the likelihood of the authority being granted powers from Whitehall.
Council CEO responds
However, Jo Turton, chief executive of Lancashire CC, said the secretary's decision to consider an inquiry into the changes was disappointing, and that Lancashire were confident that once Bradley had seen the additional information, it would be clear that a public inquiry was not needed.
"We have carried out a great deal of detailed work to ensure our proposals for libraries fulfil the council's statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service," Turton said. "This work included a 12 week public consultation, which received over 7,700 responses, and subsequent changes were made to our original proposals after listening to peoples' views.
"The changes we are making will contribute towards the huge savings the council needs to make, while ensuring that people still have good access to library services through an extensive network across the county.
"A modern library service is about far more than providing books in buildings. We continue to reach out to communities through our mobile libraries, and meet the increasing demand for digital resources, whilst ensuring we continue to meet our statutory duties.
"We have also worked hard with community groups to start establishing a number of community-run libraries which will add to our already comprehensive network, with the majority of the population living within two miles of a library service.
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