A fiery debate over the county council’s plans to hand over 20 libraries to volunteers took place at the authority’s Matlock headquarters this afternoon.
The opposition leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats on Derbyshire County Council called in the consultation on the future of the county’s libraries – feeling that it lacked “openness and clarity of aims and desired outcomes”.
This was as a result of a reference which the council leader, Cllr Barry Lewis, had made in a letter to town and parish councillors about the consultation aims.
In this letter, he made reference to a fallback plan.
He wrote that if volunteers fail to take on the 20 libraries – a plan being put forward to save the authority £1.6 million over three years – then the sites could be taken over by mutuals.
Converting the running of a library into a mutual would involve turning it into a private company, owned and run by its investors.
However, this is not stated as a fallback plan in the final consultation document.
Labour’s Cllr Anne Western and Cllr Dave Allen, and the Liberal Democrats’ Cllr Beth Atkins and Cllr Sue Burfoot, felt that this was cause to bring the consultation back in for further debate.
However, after an hour-long debate on the subject, councillors on the improvement and scrutiny committee voted five to three in favour of keeping the plans as they are – with no further action taken to alter the consultation.
Cllr Lewis stressed that there is no plan to close any libraries, he said: “I think that this is a bit of nonsense and a waste of taxpayers’ money, it’s spurious.
“I may have strayed too far by mentioning mutuals but I feel I am well within my rights as leader of the administration to reassure our town and parish councils.
“However, the Labour administration are not exactly covered in glory where libraries are concerned, I’m afraid.”
“The public understand the options available. We are doing nothing more here than having a conversation with ourselves about what is just a minor detail.
“I’ve made my thoughts clear on this particular issue.
“As you know, I used to be an archaeologist, and I appreciate digging a technical hole, but this technical hole takes some beating.”
Cllr Western responded: “I have to take issue with what Cllr Lewis says about this being a technical point.
“We have had it drilled into us, and I have had years of hard experience, that when we are consulting on something, you must be clear on what you are consulting on.”
“There is clear evidence that the proper process for the consultation has not been followed.
“People should have confidence that there is complete transparency. Halt this now, it should be done properly.”
During the heated discussions, Cllr Kevin Gillott, Labour, took issue with reference to options – such as mutuals – which had been actively rejected by council officers in their initial 162-page report.
He felt that if these options are turned down by officers they cannot form part of the outgoing consultation, due to the possibility that this could confuse members of the public.
Cllr Lewis retorted: “It certainly was not my intention to confuse members of the public and the only person who seems to be confused is yourself (Cllr Gillott).”
In response, Cllr Gillott requested that Cllr Lewis not resort to personal insults on committee members.
Another issue which was raised by the opposition was the call-in procedure itself, which calls for no action during seven days before the scrutiny meeting.
However, the draft consultation strategy was sent off to the secretary of state for signing-off regardless of this – much to Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ displeasure.
Council officers said that the Secretary of State had been informed of the call-in and to hold off on judgement.
Now that the call-in process has ended, the consultation may proceed as planned.
The preferred option put forward by the council is to hand over 20 of the county’s least-used libraries to volunteers and to review the opening hours, staff, and mode of service at the remaining 25.
Meanwhile, the remaining three options are to retain all 45 libraries, close several libraries, or pass the service over to another organisation, such as another local authority.
Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service