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Citizens’ army plan to run libraries may be unlawful, culture minister warns

Citizens’ army plan to run libraries may be unlawful, culture minister warns

🕔10.Oct 2014

Hard-up councils planning to invite community volunteers to run local libraries have been given a warning shot by the Government that the move may be unlawful.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey is considering ordering a public inquiry into Sheffield city council’s decision to save £1.6 million by transferring the management of half of its libraries to unpaid volunteers.

He is concerned that Sheffield will no longer be able to meet a legal obligation to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.

The Minister’s intervention could have implications for scores of other councils that are drawing up plans to cease providing non-statutory services or arrange for volunteers to take over.

The result of an inquiry will be viewed with interest in Birmingham where city council leader Sir Albert Bore has warned that the only way many local authority services will survive in an era of town hall austerity is if they are run by community and voluntary organisations.

There are no plans at the moment to ask volunteers to run any of Birmingham’s community libraries, but district committees have reduced staffing and opening hours in response to huge cuts in Government grant.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act states that local authorities must provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service. It remains far from clear, though, how a “comprehensive and efficient” service is defined.

A year ago Sir Albert called for the formation of a “citizens’ army” to take over services that would otherwise be faced with closure.

He said: “I am putting out a clear message that the city council will welcome proposals from the community to take over assets or run services. We are acknowledging that community groups can often deliver services more meaningfully than the council and at a lower cost.”

Birmingham city council has cut spending by £460 million since 2010-11 and expects to have to find further savings of about £340 million over the next two years.

The new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square opened in September 2012 at a cost of £187 million. The council has said it wants to keep its network of community libraries, but has admitted that the running costs of the Library of Birmingham are a drain on reduced budgets.

A 2014-15 city council budget consultation paper set out ways in which communities, individuals, organisations and businesses could play a bigger role in running Birmingham.

The document suggested volunteers could help to run local services and take over local facilities through the Community Asset Transfer process.

Mr Vaizey has written to Sheffield council requesting information about cuts to the library service.

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

Mr 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 Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy has reported a net closure of more than 270 library branches around the country since 2010. A loss of more than 3,000 library staff has been met with a 44.5 per cent increase in volunteers last year alone.

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