Wed, 29 Jan 2020
NEWBURY Town Council has voted in favour of halving the amount it pays to West Berkshire Council towards the cost of running the library service – saying the money could be better spent elsewhere.
For the past three years, the town council has been making an annual contribution of £31,250.
However, at a policy and resources meeting on Monday, town council leader Martin Colston said it had taken the decision to cut that by around 50 per cent.
Mr Colston said: “This council believes that West Berkshire Council should fulfil its statutory obligation to deliver library services without calling on local councils to add in extra money.
“Despite that, we will continue to provide some funding, but we are going to be funding at a level of about £15,000 a year going forward.
“It’s not because we don't value what you do, but we think the funding should be coming from elsewhere and we wanted to redirect some of that money to other areas that we think are deserving of that.”
In 2016, West Berkshire Council cut funding for libraries by 44 per cent as part of its wider plan to save £19m. That move saw one library close and staff replaced by volunteers at many others.
For the past three years, the district council has been asking town and parish councils to make an annual contribution towards the service to help make up the shortfall.
It requested the equivalent of £1 per resident – a total of £150,000 – but currently receives £91,000 per year.
At the meeting on Monday, West Berkshire Council’s culture and libraries manager Paul James said the library service was performing well.
He put it down to the town and parish councils “working together” and also praised the 295 volunteers who have helped keep it running.
He also informed councillors that in the last quarter of 2019 (October to December), borrowing at Newbury library was up 10 per cent, while there was an 11-per- cent rise in new members and a 23-per- cent increase in visitor numbers compared to the same period in 2018.
But despite this, he said he couldn’t give any guarantees about whether there would be more cuts to the library service as a whole in the future.
Mr James warned: “Reading the rumours about national public sector finance, there’s probably more trouble coming over the hill and libraries won’t be immune to that.”
He said the greatest way to futureproof the service was to make it “as good as it possibly can be”, adding that it was “a lot harder to protect it if it was underperforming”.
The district council currently spends £1.2m a year on the library service and Mr James explained that Newbury library alone costs £350,000 a year to run. But, he said, when other things are taken into account, the true cost is nearer £800,000.
However, the library pulled in just £37,000 of income last year – meaning it only made 10 per cent of what it costs to run it.
Town councillor Elizabeth O’Keeffe asked Mr James whether the district council had explored different ways of generating income. He responded that the council was always looking at ways, but there was “only so much business out there we can pursue”.
He added: “Increasing our income isn’t going to cover the cost of Newbury library. It never will.
“It is a library service, it’s not a commercial lettings hire place, but we do push it as hard as we reasonably can and that figure has gone up over the years.”
Giving some reassurance, he added: “I think it is highly likely there will always be an excellent library in Newbury. It is the hub and the others are the spokes of the wheel.”
Green Party councillor for Speenhamland Steve Masters asked whether the district council was going to protect the five permanent librarians who remain in the district. Mr James said: “I am not going to answer questions about jobs, because I don’t know.
“Does anyone what is going on with local government finance?
“Even the Prime Minister can’t tell you that, so I’m not even going to guess.
“But I think by working together we get a stronger library service and we get more value for money out of it.”
Mr James referenced Hungerford and Mortimer libraries, where the leasehold of the buildings have both been transferred to the respective parish councils and run entirely by volunteers.
He added: “Those sorts of models, I think that’s what the future looks like really.”