Wed, 24 Jul 2019
THATCHAM town councillors have held off making a decision on whether to pay West Berkshire Council “mafia money” to keep the town’s library open.
The previously Conservative town council paid the district council £24,000 each year for the last three years to help fund libraries across the district.
But the now Liberal Democrat-controlled council has decided to postpone making a decision until it has more information on how its £24,480 contribution is being spent.
In 2016, West Berkshire Council put forward hugely controversial proposals to close all of the libraries in the district apart from Newbury in a bid to make £19m of savings.
Following a public outcry and Government advice that the council would need to conduct an assessment of the service before it closed any library, the local authority changed the proposals.
It decided instead to halve the amount of staff and called on volunteers to keep their local libraries open.
It also closed Wash Common Library, which has since been re-opened by volunteers, and asked town and parish councils to pay £150,000 to help cover the costs of running libraries.
At a town council meeting on Monday, Owen Jeffery (Lib Dem, Thatcham Central) said: “I am more than a bit disturbed by this particular proposal and the character of what has been sent through to us.”
Mr Jeffery said that following the public campaign “it became very clear that West Berkshire Council was operating in a way that, if not illegal, was definitely improper and it was rapped across the knuckles by the DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] because they would not be providing the library service they were supposed to.
“Three years on, we have got a very clear picture that what has happened is West Berkshire thinks it has a right to come to various town and parish councils and, not demand, but to nudge up with menaces ‘you better stump up or something might happen to your library service’. It’s the tactics of the mafia.”
Mr Jeffery proposed that councillors delay paying the £24,000 and instead have “a very serious conversation” with the district council about how the money would be spent.
Going one further, Jeremy Cottam (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East) said it was the district council’s statutory duty to run the library service and that he had commented three years ago that the council was breaking the law.
He said: “I wholeheartedly support the service that we have here.
“I know it’s used by local parents and children and that it’s a vital service that we hope will continue.
“I want to have more information coming back and understand how our money is being spent and that it’s not going to a general pot.
“I want to understand what we are getting for our money. I’m personally in favour of this but I want more information.”
Town mayor Mike Cole (Lib Dem, Thatcham North East) added that he supported the library but wanted more information “purely and simply because we are a public body, we are allocating public money with no idea on what it’s being spent on”.
Councillors voted to defer the payment and to meet with the district council to discuss the funding.
Conservative councillor Ellen Crumly (Thatcham Central) abstained from the vote, saying: “We should support the library as much as we can.
“It’s being run super efficiently as it is and I wouldn’t want to do anything that would endanger that.”