A SENIOR Tory councillor has said it is “irrelevant” if West Berkshire Council’s original library closure proposals were illegal – because it wasn’t challenged on it.
As part of its plan to save £17.5m this year, the council consulted on plans to close eight of the district’s nine libraries, leaving just Newbury open.
Those proposals sparked a public backlash and led to questions as to whether the council would be meeting its statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient library service”.
Councillor Hilary Cole, who was previously responsible for libraries, admitted that the council “took a risk”, but refused to accept the plans were illegal.
However, last week, Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) said it was “quite clear” the council would have been neglecting its statutory duties if it followed through on the proposals.
Replying to Mr Dillon at a public meeting, Dominic Boeck (Con, Aldermaston), who is now the councillor in charge of libraries, said: “If it [the initial proposal] was illegal, the test would have been if it was challenged, but it wasn’t, so your question is irrelevant really.”
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport told the council it would have to complete an assessment before closing any library.
In response, and after being awarded £1.4m of transitional funding from the Government, the council altered its proposals and came up with a new plan to close just two libraries – Theale and Wash Common.
The council then commissioned RedQuadrant to carry out the needs assessment to determine how the library service is used and what impact any closures would have on the community.
Based on the findings, the council came up with three options.
The most drastic option would see a £645,000 cut, and all staff in seven branch libraries replaced by volunteers.
Another option would create a ‘hub and spoke’ library network, replacing half of the staff at two branches and the remaining five run entirely by volunteers.
This would save an estimated £620,000, but the council does not say which libraries would be affected.
However, a consultant report indicates that hubs in the east and west of the district could be established.
The final option would see staffing levels at seven branches halved, with volunteers taking up the slack, saving an estimated £580,000.
All options include closing Wash Common library and cutting one mobile library.
At last week’s meeting, Mr Dillon asked: “How confident are you that these three options will meet our statutory duty and will not be open to a legal challenge or judicial review?
Mr Boeck replied: “We have got three options we are going to consultation on. We employed RedQuadrant because they are experienced and qualified.”
Councillor Adrian Edwards (Con, Falkland) asked whether there was a chance Wash Common library could be saved if volunteers came forward to run it and if the current building could still be used.
Mr Boeck responded by saying: “I am quite happy to talk about this outside the meeting, but I’m not really in a position to thrash out a solution here.
“We would need to see a proposal and consider it.”
A public consultation on the three options for the future of the library service will close on Sunday, December 11.
To have your say, visit http://info.westberks.gov.uk/ index.aspx?articleid=33493