The following statement has been released by Public Interest Lawyers:
Public Interest Lawyers, on behalf of clients in Gloucestershire and Somerset, today launched the first major legal challenge to County Councils’ plans to slash the number of public libraries.
The letters before action challenge the councils’ reliance on ‘big society’ community-transfer initiatives that conflict with their clear statutory obligation to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ for everyone wanting to use it. PIL also argue that the councils did not consult properly with local people prior to making the decision to cut, nor have they paid proper attention to the needs of vulnerable groups.
Gloucestershire County Council proposes to reduce the number of libraries with full opening hours from 38 to 9 and to cut the mobile library service for persons in rural areas entirely. Somerset County Council initially proposed to cut 20 of 34 libraries and to reduce mobile libraries from 6 services to 2. They have since announced that the cuts will be reduced to 1/3 of libraries, but without showing how this would be financed.
The scale of the cuts in both counties is excessive and more than twice the percentage reduction in central government funding. Thousands of people in Gloucestershire and Somerset will either lose their local libraries, or, at best, will experience a dramatic reduction in opening hours. When consulted on the changes, the public’s opposition to the cuts has been made clear. Somerset Council’s own survey showed that 82% of respondents disagreed with the changes. However, many in communities affected by closures have not been consulted at all.
Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers said as follows:
“Libraries are the heart of communities up and down the country. Councils cannot pin their hopes on vague notions of the ‘big society’ when they are required by Parliament to maintain a comprehensive and efficient library service for everyone in the county. That means everyone, including single mothers, the disabled, the elderly and those living in rural areas.”
Leigh Webber, also from Public Interest Lawyers, added that:
“The consultations have been rushed through to enable councils to approve their budgets, but this has meant that Gloucestershire and Somerset County Councils have been unable even to adequately assess the needs of local people, never mind consult them properly about the changes.”
In a statement delivered by Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries at a full council meeting on 19th January 2011, where a petition, which has now gathered 15,000 signatures, asking for an independent and transparent review of the disproportionate, ill-thought out library cuts was being debated, we stated that “any expense associated with a review is an expense which could have been avoided had the Council engaged in a proper and meaningful consultation process from the start, and would be minimal in comparison to the expense which may be incurred from the likely legal challenges should the Council proceed with these proposals”.
Before and since this meeting we, and former senior library staff, have raised real concerns that the cabinet was neglecting their statutory duties. They would not listen, and they would not listen to the public outcry their proposals have provoked both locally and nationally. An additional chance to have an open and honest conversation about the library proposals was provided when opposition councillors “called-in” their proposals at a scrutiny meeting on 14th Feb 2011. Cabinet members were warned again, this time by opposition councillors, that they may be contravening the law. The council leader chose to brand the “call-in” a “political stunt”.
The people of Gloucestershire have been let down by GCC, and we are sad to see that members of the public have had to resort to a legal challenge in order to hold their elected representatives to account. The saddest thing of all, is that this could have been avoided.