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Government may intervene in volunteer takeover of Sheffield libraries

The government may hold a local public inquiry into the decision by Sheffield City Council to turn over the running of half the city’s libraries to community volunteers following funding cuts.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey recently wrote to the leader of Sheffield council, Julie Dore, to request information on how it was planning to implement the £1.6m funding cuts to its libraries.

Earlier this year 11 city libraries were at risk of closure before the council offered financial support to allow volunteers to take them over.

The Broomhill Library Action Group made a legal complaint over the council’s approach to using volunteers, citing the needs assessment as flawed and that a quarter of Sheffield residents would be left without library provision.

Sajid Javid, the culture secretary, will review the authority’s response to the request for more details before deciding whether to initiate a local public inquiry at the end of the month.

Vaizey wrote: “The secretary of state’s present position is that there is insufficient information to enable him to decide whether a local inquiry is necessary to resolve any real doubt or uncertainty about whether the council is complying with its statutory duty.”

The action group’s complaint cited the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, which says the government can intervene if local authorities are not deemed to be providing a comprehensive and efficient public library service.

In the past Vaizey has declined to intervene in similar situations in Bolton, Lewisham and the Isle of Wight.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) has spoken out against a move to libraries being run by volunteers.

Martyn Wade, chair of council for CILIP, said: “CILIP is opposed to job substitution where paid professional and support roles are directly replaced with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts to save money. This applies to all library and information services in every sector.

“If this happens services will suffer and will be unsustainable. What remains would be a library service unable to serve the community comprehensively, support people’s information needs or provide everyone with the opportunity for learning and development.

“We acknowledge the difficult times that we live in, but now more than ever, high quality information services are vital to people’s lives, and local communities, learners, workers and businesses need the support of a trained and skilled workforce to thrive.”

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