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Local libraries lose more funding and visitors in five-year trend of decline

Cash-strapped councils across England, Scotland and Wales cut funding for local libraries by £25m last year in further woes for the sector, the Charted Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) has reported.

The institute’s annual library survey revealed that not only have council-run libraries experienced a decline in investment but also in visitors, with 15 million fewer visits recorded in 2015-16 compared to 2014-15, equivalent to a 5.5% drop.

The survey also found that the numbers of libraries open in Great Britain fell by 1.7% in 2015-16 (from 3,917 to 3,850), with total expenditure for services falling by £25m to £919m. Paid library staff fell by 5.3% year on year while volunteer numbers rose by 7.5%, demonstrating the sector’s difficult financial circumstances.

Rob Whiteman, chief executive of CIPFA, said: “This fall in library funding comes at a time of unprecedented budgetary pressures for local councils. In this climate really tough decisions are having to be made about all sorts of services and libraries are just one of the services bearing the brunt.

“But despite the grim outlook, libraries are continuing to transform and innovate, adapting to changing visitor habits and providing a raft of new services and offerings.”

Last week, the government’s Libraries Taskforce pledged £4m to support disadvantaged communities through libraries and urged councils to consider using libraries as community hubs to deliver other public services such as employment, health and educational opportunities.

Birmingham Library, the most visited library in Great Britain with 1.6 million visitors in 2015-16, already offers adult learning facilities, immigration advice services and hires out some of its facilities privately in order to supplements its funding. Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library saw the most ‘traditional’ activity, loaning out 984,445 books and other forms of media.

Cllr Ian Stephens, chairman of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, noted that libraries are playing an increasingly important role as community hubs, but must continue to adapt in order to survive in the face of government cuts.

“There is a fantastic amount of creativity and ambition among library staff, councils and their communities to make the very best of resources,” Cllr Stephens said.

“However, councils have experienced a 40% reduction in core central government funding over the last Parliament and funding pressures will continue over the next few years. This means library services must continue to adapt and change in line with the resources available, and the changing expectations of their communities.”

This year’s findings are the latest in a five-year trend of decline for public libraries. Libraries across Great Britain have seen a 14% reduction in total net expenditure over the last half-decade, from £979m in 2011-12 to £842m in 2015-16. They have also seen a 16.2% drop in overall visitors, from 299 million in 2011-12 to 250 million last year.

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