Today, at a Cabinet meeting, Gloucestershire County Council approved its ‘new’ library proposals go forward to a six week public consultation starting 30 January. Gloucestershire County Council is being watched closely by the lawyers who represented library users in Gloucestershire in a successful high court legal challenge, in which Judge McKenna ruled GCC guilty of “bad government” and a “substantive breach” of equalities legislation when forming their previous proposals. In response to the ‘new’ proposals, the legal team has shared “serious concerns” with Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries. They are
“Gloucestershire County Council, unlike Somerset County Council (who also had their library plans quashed at the hearing), are rushing this process to hit the new financial year deadline. This risks putting the cart before the horse for a second time. Despite telling the court that they had taken deprivation into account, it is gratifying to see that, now that it has, Hester’s Way and other libraries in deprived areas have been saved. But we are concerned that there are still serious flaws in the council’s approach:
- It recognises that its equalities and user information is deficient. But this has to be the foundation of the proposal, so the proposal as now put forward can be no better than highly provisional. We expect real changes in response to the consultation. And the consultation must gather the necessary data. If it doesn’t, then it should be modified and extended.
- whilst there is a lot of pressure therefore on this consultation, there is virtually no information about its content, how it will be conducted, how equalities groups will be specifically targeted and how taxpayers can really have their say and be listened to this time around.
- there is insufficient information about the state of the proposed community partnerships, their viability and service levels. Taxpayers need this to make an informed response.
- there are still analytical flaws in the EIA, and a failure to modify the proposals in light of it.
- What is happening to the mobiles? The council must be clear.
- the council needs to make clear what factual scenario it has assumed in order to evaluate equalities impacts. What level of success, if any, of the community partnerships has it taken into account?
- If the council is assuming success of community partnerships, then it must guarantee that it will step in to maintain service in the event that they fail. “
Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries are extremely concerned at the very short time frame the County Council is restricting itself to, and, given that the ‘new plans’ are nearly identical to the last unlawful ones, we fear it may be making the same mistakes again. There is no evidence that the new review was approached with a “completely open mind” as claimed. Like the lawyers, we expect to see big changes to the proposals in response to the consultation, and the thorough collection and analysis of user needs. Therefore, we cannot stress enough how important it is that the people of Gloucestershire engage with the consultation process, and that community leaders and councillors make sure the people they represent are listened to. No one wants to end up back in court.