Victory for Gloucestershire library campaigners
CAMPAIGNERS are celebrating after winning their fight to stop the closure of 10 libraries in the county.
A High Court judge said today that Gloucestershire County Council's plan to cut funding for the buildings cannot to ahead.
The decision means Shire Hall must reconsider its decision to hand facilities to volunteers.
It means that the Conservative administration must continue to pay for libraries including Hester's Way and Churchdown.
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Public Interest Lawyers, which fought the case against decisions by councils in Gloucestershire and Somerset, said that for more than a year campaigners had been ``pointing to the disproportionate effect that the cuts would have on disadvantaged groups such as the elderly, single mothers and the disabled''.
The judge, they added, had "ruled comprehensively in their favour".
In a statement Mr Carey said: "Today’s High Court ruling sends a clear message not only to Gloucestershire and Somerset, but to every council in the country that catering for the needs of the vulnerable must be at the heart of any decision to cut important services such as libraries.
"The ’big society’ cannot be relied upon to justify disenfranchising vulnerable individuals from the services on which they rely.
"I am very pleased for the thousands of residents who have supported this campaign."
Judge McKenna ruled: "In my judgment, on the preponderance of the evidence, no such due regard was had in substance.
"In order to discharge their respective duties Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) and Somerset County Council (SCC) should have undertaken a sufficiently thorough information gathering exercise and then properly analysed that information.
"In this case I conclude that both GCC and SCC failed to comply with that obligation."
Cllr Mark Hawthorne, Leader of Gloucestershire County Council, said: “The most important thing here is that the judge said that there is nothing wrong with our plans to transfer some libraries over to communities.
“We are very disappointed for the community groups who are lined up to take over their services, but our promise to them is that we will continue to work with them on delivering successful community run services.
“In line with the judge’s ruling, we will be taking this decision again with an open mind but we are confident that our policy on community run libraries is sound.”
Pete Bungard, Chief Executive of the Council, said: “We have a priority to protect services for vulnerable people and to do that we have to reduce our spending and that means libraries taking some of the burden.
“In this case, the judge has found in our favour on the 47 year old legislation – it is clear we can reduce our budget and have fewer libraries. He was also clear that our consultation was sound and open minded.
“However, the judge found we needed to do more with regards to our responsibilities under the Equalities Act and this is a huge disappointment as we take our duties here extremely seriously.
“With hindsight, we approached this as a transfer to the community rather than a statutory closure where a more thorough approach would have been taken.”
After the decision Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries released the following statement:
We are delighted with the outcome of the judicial review. This outcome follows the proper scrutiny of Gloucestershire County Council's library plans in court; scrutiny which was never allowed under the councils own processes. The judge’s decision to rule in the claimant’s favour on equality grounds is a real vindication of our campaign, which has long argued that the removal of public library services from the most disadvantaged, deprived and vulnerable members of our community is grossly unfair. We are also pleased to learn that the council have been denied permission to appeal the decision.
However, as Gloucestershire tax payers we regret the inevitable expense that will now be incurred by the county, and which could have been avoided if only the council had listened to and engaged with service users – they have seriously let their taxpayers and electorate down. Over the last year library users and retired professional librarians have repeatedly warned the council that they were in breach of the law, but party politics was always placed before these concerns, which were again and again dismissed.
Gloucestershire residents should never have had to go through this stressful, upsetting and expensive process and serious questions now also need to be answered by the secretary of state Ed Vaizey. It is Mr Vaizey’s duty to intervene when authorities are not meeting their obligations to provide a library service available to all who wish to use it. Why were Gloucestershire County Council allowed to continue down this destructive path? In opposition Mr Vaizey was a vocal critic of library closures yet our many pleas for help have been ignored whilst library users were left to fight this alone - it is clear that he left his convictions at the door on entering office.
We would like to thank supporters of the campaign locally and nationally, and urge all Gloucestershire library users to keep a close eye on the county council’s activities in the coming months to ensure they do their job properly this time round. We also need to be vigilant to cuts which may be planned for the future. Libraries are more important than ever in times of financial crises, when education costs are rising astronomically and many people are losing their jobs. We hope that come the next county council elections, voters will remember the arrogance displayed by the Gloucestershire County Council administration on this issue.