Small victory for Northants library campaigners

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Campaigners fighting the proposed closure of 21 libraries in Northamptonshire have gained a small victory today (June 20) after local politicians voted not to permanently close any libraries until after the result of the forthcoming judicial review is known.

There were scenes of high drama and passion at Northampton’s County Hall this afternoon (June 21) as a motion to put on hold the process was debated by members of the council.

As part of plans to make multi-million-pound savings the authority has proposed to close the libraries and may sell the 12 it owns if local community groups cannot come up with the funds to buy the buildings. The matter will go before the high court at the end of next month (July) after two families questioned the legality of the proposed closures.

Campaigners who spoke at the meeting heavily criticised the way the process of handing over the libraries to be run by community groups has been handled by the county authority.

Marion Collyer, from Deanshanger library, said volunteers had been asked to fill out countless forms; give their vision for the libraries and prove they had finances in place for three years as well as hand over minutes of meetings.

She said: “To you this is about the buildings. We can see the pound signs in your eyes.”

Campaigners have until Monday (June 25) to put forward their full business plans for running their library.

Some members of the ruling Conservative administration spoke out against the closures.

Cllr Richard Auger said: “I would ask for reassurance from the cabinet that we get a grip of this. We need a bespoke department for a short period of time to deal with the libraries.”

Cllr Dudley Hughes, Cllr Wendy Brackenbury, Cllr Robert Gough and  Cllr Sam Rumens also criticised the way the process has been handled and how the volunteers opting to run the libraries had been treated.

Independent councillor Julie Davenport said that the authority was trying to profit from the library closures.

She said: “It is quite scandalous that the Far Cotton library rent is just £1 a year and the county council is asking the Far Cotton library group to pay £35,000 a year. They are trying to make a profit from the taxpayers.”

Council Leader Matt Golby, who took over the top job two months ago, offered some hope to campaigners but was not specific about action.

He said: “We do try to listen. We have spent a lot of time working on the libraries issue.

“We have now got a bit more time before the judicial review and we are  looking at what we can do.”

The leader also said the authority was  bringing in external advice to help with the libraries review.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Chris Stanbra, who originally put forward the motion, decided to vote against it after opposition Cllr Dudley Smith made an amendment. Cllr Stanbra said the amendment ‘negated’ the original motion. The amended motion was backed by most Conservative councillors and voted against by most opposition councillors.

NCC stands to make £3.23m if it sells of the 12 libraries. The authority needs to make £35m worth of savings this year and it also must pay back £12m into reserves. The chief finance officer Mark McLaughlin has warned that this may not be possible.

County council cabinet member for public health and wellbeing Cllr Cecile Irving-Swift said in a statement after the meeting: “The libraries issue has been very difficult and challenging for all of us. We have a little more time now the judicial review has been moved back to the end of July.

“That doesn’t change the position of needing the library service, as well as other council services, to change the way they operate and to reduce costs. However, having listened to the concerns of residents and the groups who have expressed an interest in running independent libraries, we are able to use this time to consider how we may help those groups achieve their ambition.

“In doing this we will also take the opportunity to involve external experts on the subject and to consider how success has been achieved elsewhere. Further information when ready, will be shared with council and indeed the groups that have already come forward.”