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Labour votes for £2.3m Tory-Lib Dem Birmingham library cuts in rare display of cross-party unity

Labour votes for £2.3m Tory-Lib Dem Birmingham library cuts in rare display of cross-party unity

🕔06.Mar 2012

Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders at Birmingham City Council have achieved a highly unlikely coup by persuading senior Labour councillors to back plans to save £2.3 million by reducing library opening hours.

Months of sensitive negotiations ended with all of the city’s 10 Constituency Committee chairmen reaching agreement on a 28 per cent cut in the community libraries budget, which will also see 12 jobs disappear.

Although library opening hours will be reduced by an average 12 per cent, the decision enables Birmingham’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to deliver one of its key policy pledges not to close any library, swimming pool or sports centre in the current difficult economic climate.

The deal was backed by six Conservative and Liberal Democrat constituency chairmen, as well as the Labour chairmen of Erdington, Hodge Hill, Hall Green and Ladywood constituencies, according to cabinet members.

Cross-party collusion in such a potentially explosive policy area is extremely rare and there have been few examples of consensus on budget cuts between the coalition and Labour since 2004.

The agreement seemed even more unlikely given concerns at the £189 million cost of the Central Library replacement in Centenary Square, and fears among some Labour councillors that spending on community libraries might be slashed in order to pay for fitting out the new library.

Faced with Government spending cuts at an unprecedented level, the constituencies were required to reduce the annual community library budget from £8.8 million to £6.5 million over three years. The required saving made it impossible to afford to  continue with the current system, where 39 community libraries are mostly open five days a week.

An initial proposal to increase opening hours at 10 libraries and cut hours at 29 libraries was not supported by all of the constituencies. It was dropped following a public consultation exercise in favour of a compromise that will see 16 of the busiest libraries open for a minimum five days a week and the remaining 23 libraries open for four days.

Cabinet leisure, sport and culture member Martin Mullaney has told the constituency committees that they can increase opening hours if they can find the money to do so, although this seems unlikely since the constituencies have to identify £9 million of savings by 2015-16.

Coun Mullaney (Lib Dem Moseley & Kings Heath) confirmed that every community library would be open on Saturdays and at least once a week during the evening. Opening hours could be increased in the future when funding for local government was more plentiful, Coun Mullaney stated.

“These are austere times, but we are not closing libraries,” he added.

Other cabinet members were at pains to stress the cross-party approach to the issue, possibly in an attempt to head off a possible Labour leafleting campaign attacking library cuts at the May council elections.

Sutton Coldfield Tory councillor Anne Underwood, who chairs the Constituencies Joint Committee, said: “Many local authorities are closing libraries and closing the schools book loan service. No closures are proposed in Birmingham.

“No constituency chairman voted against this proposal. No one abstained. All were in favour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour.”

However, her account was challenged by Labour councillor Tony Kennedy, who chairs the Hall Green constituency committee.

Coun Kennedy said the constituency chairs had merely agreed to note the library budget cuts and there was not a vote in favour.

He added: “This is not a decision making body. It will be up to each individual constituency committee to make its own arrangements for library opening hours. We have been presented with a city-wide formula designed to protect Conservative and Liberal Democrat controlled constituencies. It’s a formula that can be unpicked.”

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