Gloucestershire library closures - door open for public inquiry
MINISTERS have left the door open to a public inquiry into Gloucestershire’s cuts-hit library service but stressed they were not called “willy-nilly”.
It came as a row erupted between county MPs at Westminster over whether the plans by the Conservative-led authority will lead to closures amid fears as many as seven remain at risk.
One Tory member suggested it was an early ‘scare’ tactic by the Liberal Democrats ahead of next year’s county council elections – a charge strenuously denied.
The Commons debate into Gloucestershire libraries had been brought by Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham Martin Horwood, who was critical of the “opaque process” surrounding the cuts.
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A previous decision by the Tory-led county council to slash £2.6 million and stop funding 10 libraries, including Hesters Way in Mr Horwood’s constituency, had to be reversed after it was judged unlawful by the High Court last year.
Under scaled back cuts of £1.8 million the council will continue to run 31 libraries but seven will lose funding and be run by local communities.
Mr Horwood acknowledged tough decisions were necessary as part of the national spending squeeze to tackle the deficit, he argued Gloucestershire was “at the very top end” of cuts to library services.
He also paid tribute to campaigners who fought the cuts. “Again and again, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries highlighted the impact of the cuts, particularly the careless way in which the strategy seemed to have been put together,” said Mr Horwood.
Despite the forced rethink, which resulted in Hesters Way staying council-run, the Commons heard FOGL remained “deeply concerned” that under the revised plans seven libraries still faced closure.
Given the opposition to the council’s decisions, and how they were reached, he called for the Secretary of State to intervene.
Responding to the debate, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said: “The thrust of his remarks was that he wants a public inquiry into Gloucestershire County Council’s decision.”
But Tory MP for Gloucester Richard Graham said: “The critical point raised was the scare that libraries in the county will be closed, but my clear understanding from the county council is that no libraries will be closed.
“There is a danger that this is an artful and early kick-off to a Lib Dem county council election campaign, with scares about libraries being closed when the reality is that none will be closed.”
But Mr Horwood hit-back. “I want to put on record my absolute rejection that this is in some way the launch of a Lib Dem election campaign.”
Tory MP for Tewkesbury Laurence Robertson said one of those listed as threatened with closure was Brockworth in his constituency, which was being successfully run by the community.
Mr Vaizey told Mr Horwood in almost half a century since the current legislation was introduced, only one inquiry had been called into a library service.
“I hope that he will understand, therefore, that one cannot simply call an inquiry willy-nilly.”
Independent advice was taken from officials over whether there was a case that a council had breached requirements to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.
He said: “I will take their advice on Gloucestershire in the fullness of time, now that its provisions have become clearer.”
Mr Vaizey added: “We will review Gloucestershire’s proposals and issue a decision on whether to hold a public inquiry in the fullness of time once those proposals are clear.”