A Derbyshire MP has launched a petition over proposed cuts to the county’s library service, fearing the changes will hit people on low incomes the hardest.
Derbyshire County Council has revealed plans to hand over the running of 20 of its libraries to volunteers, as well as reviewing their opening times and staffing hours, to save £1.6 million.
High Peak MP Ruth George has expressed concerns about the proposals and on Saturday, March 31, she joined campaigners to protest outside affected libraries in Whaley Bridge, Hayfield and Hadfield.
During the protests a petition was launched, which has so far attracted more than 200 signatures. It is hoped the petition will be available online within the coming days.
Mrs George, who reclaimed the High Peak seat for Labour in last year’s General Election, said she feared that reduced opening hours and staffing would affect accessibility to libraries.
She is particularly concerned about the impact on those eligible to claim Universal Credit benefit payments who may need library computers to access the internet.
She said: “People are clearly very concerned by the prospect of local libraries being handed over to community groups and about the cuts to library opening hours.
“Whether it’s the regular trip to swap books or to use a computer, libraries are a godsend to many people.
“They provide access to books, local information, computers and the internet, which are vital for many services – Gamesley Library has some of the highest computer use in the county.
“From September, Universal Credit will come to High Peak and thousands of people on low incomes will have to claim online over the next few years, this will affect those least well off the most.
“Council funding and trained librarians are essential to guarantee our library service.”
In response, Conservative county council leader Barry Lewis dismissed Mrs George’s claims and stated that none of the libraries in Derbyshire were at risk of closure.
He said: “We’ve made it crystal clear that we will not be closing libraries.
“In the unlikely event that groups don’t come forward we will work closely with communities and other bodies to ensure libraries remain open and part of the county’s statutory framework.
“Instead of taking a dim view of local communities in her constituency and their resilience and community spirit Mrs George should work with us to make this a success.”
There are 45 libraries in Derbyshire and the county council has selected the 20 sites based on local need and the amount each library is used.
Those which are planned to be passed to the community to run are: Borrowash; Brimington; Clowne; Creswell; Duffield; Etwall; Gamesley; Hadfield; Hayfield; Holmewood; Killamarsh; Melbourne; Old Whittington; Pinxton; Somercotes; Tideswell; Whaley Bridge; Whitwell; Wingerworth; and Woodville.
As well as handing over the running of some of the libraries to community groups, council officers considered three other options – retain all libraries, close several libraries, or outsource the service entirely to another organisation, such as another local authority. But officers are recommending that the community group option is the preferred choice and this will be discussed by councillors on Thursday, April 5.
The county council also aims to move towards a “smart library” system. Officers say that this would “not necessarily” result in the total removal of staff, who would need to remain present for a number of hours each week – but a “certain percentage” of these hours would be totally unstaffed.
The smart library approach allows users to enter locked buildings using their membership card and a code, to borrow books and log on to the internet without staff being present. CCTV would be installed or improved to help monitor the service.
If given the go ahead by councillors today a consultation on the plans would start in May and last for 12 weeks. The results would be put forward by the end of the year.
The proposed library cuts come after the council agreed to shave a further £12 million from its budget this year to meet an overall funding reduction of £53 million by 2021.
Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service