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Councils ‘failing’ in statutory duties over libraries

Some local authorities have drawn up cost-saving plans cutting down on their library services without taking proper account of local needs, a new report warns.

The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee says some councils are in danger of failing in their statutory duty.

Instead of a change of legislation, the committee recommends spreading guidance encouraging a broader and more permissive interpretation of the ‘comprehensive and efficient’ requirement.

This does not necessarily mean keeping open all existing library branches, but greater coordination with other service providers and other councils would significantly benefit communities.

The report states that a wholesale transfer of services to volunteer groups is unlikely to meet the statutory criteria, and councils must continue to give volunteers necessary support to maintain service.

John Whittingdale MP, chair of the committee, said: “Library services are about much more than buildings, and the most important issue is finding creative ways to preserve – and, if possible, enhance – library services.

“Reductions in opening hours and the loss of professional staff may damage the service more than the closure of particular buildings, even though of course premises are key to accessible, comprehensive provision.

“Although the current crisis may appear to bode ill for the future of public libraries, it also presents an opportunity for a thorough reassessment of their role and of the way they are organised. During this inquiry we saw many examples of innovative thinking about what libraries can offer to the local population, and a number of models of how those services might be provided.

“At the moment councils appear to be somewhat in the dark about what is expected of them and are making decisions which are being overturned by judicial review. This is an expensive, undemocratic and generally unsatisfactory way of making policy. Councils need to be given the support and advice they need to consult locally and develop a service that meets the needs of the local community and complies with their obligations.”

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