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Tory leader accuses Labour MP of misleading public over Derbyshire library plans

Councillor Barry Lewis, leader of Derbyshire County Council.
Councillor Barry Lewis, leader of Derbyshire County Council.

The Conservative leader of Derbyshire County Council has insisted no libraries will close on his watch.

Last Thursday, cabinet members agreed to hold a 12-week public consultation on proposals which could see the authority ask volunteers to take over and manage 20 libraries in Derbyshire.

Ruth George, Labour MP for High Peak.

Ruth George, Labour MP for High Peak.

Ruth George, Labour MP for the High Peak, has set up an online petition which claims that libraries would shut if volunteers do no come forward to run them.

But councillor Barry Lewis, leader of the council, accused Mrs George of 'scaremongering' and urged her to retract her 'misleading statement'.

He said: "Derbyshire Conservatives have been unequivocal - no Derbyshire library will close.

"We're more than happy to debate the issue at the full council meeting in June, where we will bring a paper to stimulate that debate.

"Ruth is more than welcome to come and ask us sensible questions there as a member of the public."

Mrs George, whose petition currently has nearly 300 backers, said: "I welcome Coun Lewis's guarantee that no Derbyshire libraries will close and I am delighted that the campaign to save our libraries has met with such immediate success.

"However, it does now raise three important questions: 1) If no volunteers are able to staff our libraries, how will the council guarantee that they will remain open both now and in future when the council grant to these libraries has been reduced to zero? 2) If our libraries are all staying open, will the council also guarantee the jobs of our professional library staff who are the only people who can genuinely deliver on such a guarantee? 3) If there are other possible options, why are they not in the consultation?"

Coun Lewis responded: "Ruth is being disingenuous and frankly embarrassing by saying her campaign is a success.

"It was nothing more than a tacky publicity stunt of the sort that we've come to expect from Labour, designed to scaremonger and cause undue concern.

"Ruth has asked some ill-informed questions and I would suggest she reads the report properly, does her own research and awaits the outcome of the consultation, which would be more appropriate as it is informed by conversations with residents, communities, library staff and others."

Which libraries could be affected?

Libraries which could 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.

There are 45 libraries in Derbyshire and the council has selected the above sites based on a number of factors including the number of visits and the number of books issued.

Community-managed libraries would receive funding from the council for up to four years and people running them would get training and ongoing professional support.

The council - which needs to make £12million in savings in 2018-19 as a result of Tory austerity - is also considering reducing opening hours at libraries at quieter times and changing the way the mobile library service is run, with a view to this being transferred to community management.

Coun Lewis said: "We are huge advocates for public libraries and know how important they are to our local communities.

"We're putting forward a strong proposal which we are confident will see all 45 libraries and our two mobile libraries survive and thrive, having already ruled out some routes taken by other authorities, including outsourcing or wholesale closure.

"The fact is that we have to consider making changes as it isn't sustainable to carry on providing and funding the service the way we do now.

"It's not all about savings, though, as the way people use libraries is changing too - and the service needs to reflect this. In Derbyshire between 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 book issues in the county saw a reduction of 33 per cent in line with the national trend and there was a 21 per cent decline in physical visits.

"People are making more use of technology and while there's been a reduction in people visiting libraries, there's been an increases in remote use of our digital resources, such as ebooks, eMagazines and accessing online newspapers."

Coun Anne Western, leader of the Labour group on the council, said: "It's time for Coun Lewis to show courage and leadership and tell his Government that austerity isn't working and that we want a professionally run library service.

"If you want a quality service, you've got to be prepared to put the investment in - but the Government is squeezing local authority budgets so hard that people have to consider these sorts of crazy ideas.

"All we have seen so far from this enterprising council model is to try and push things out to the community to run themselves.

"Do they think people are just sitting around at home with nothing better to do? Do they know people are out working hard, supporting their families and looking after their grandchildren?

"There's a massive disconnect between the words and the jargon and the thoughts that are going on at County Hall and the reality out in our communities - and it's really troubling."

The consultation on the future of Derbyshire's libraries will start on Monday, May 7.

Details on how people can have their say in the consultation will be publicised nearer that date.