Austerity bites as council votes through closures

Children protest against the proposed closure of the libraries in Cleveleys and Thornton
Children protest against the proposed closure of the libraries in Cleveleys and Thornton
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THE death knell was sounded for numerous Lancashire libraries, Children’s and Young People’s Centres at county hall yesterday.

The county council’s cabinet met to approve major cuts to services, reorganisation of others and the closure of more than 100 of its buildings.

But Labour’s cabinet was keen to stress it was a choice they never wished to make.

Council leader County Coun Jenny Mein, who chaired the meeting, said: “I don’t want to close libraries - that’s the last thing I want to do.”

She said cuts in government funding had forced the closure decisions and while it was not just Lancashire which was suffering, the county had been one of the worst hit.

Earlier in the meeting the cabinet approved financial updates revealing the council is already £11m overspent in the first quarter of the financial year due in part to demands on its children’s and social care services, but believes its budget will be balanced by next April. Further reports showed the council anticipated a financial shortfall of £150m by 2020/21.

Cuts were also agreed to the Supporting People and Prvention and Early Help services with a lifeline offered to some.

Finance spokesman and Deputy leader David Borrow said: “I think there’s a growing realisation of the scale of the financial difficulties faced by the county and how it needs to be tackled.” Extensive consultations had been carried out and views taken into account- meaning that initial proposals on 28 buildings at risk of closure were changed.

But, to the disappointment of local campaigners Fulwood library was not one of those given a reprieve.

The council received 7,700 responses during a 12-week consultation on closures over the summer, as well as a number of petitions.

County Coun Marcus Johnstone, Cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, said: “This is what austerity looks like.”

He outlined steps taken to soften the cuts blow – with help to set up community-run libraries, investment in new modern mobile library vehicles which would offer access to digital services and the retention of the schools, prison and home library services.

The decision on which libraries would close was based on two criteria – access and the deprivation of local communities. Some 95% of people in densely populated areas would be within two miles of a main library and 70% of those in less populated areas within three miles of a library facility.

It was revealed there could be even more change ahead with a suggestion to investigate the future transfer the library service to an external provider, as York Council has.

Tory Coun Keith Sedgewick said in his ward where Fulwood was closing and Sharoe Green Library staying Fulwood had the biggest building, two and a half times more active users and a three times bigger population than the area served by the Sharoe Green library. He asked: “Please can you have another look at it before you make a final decision?”Afterwards he said: “I used to be Preston mayor - I don’t want to see another heritage building go.”

The Conservative group is considering “calling in” the property closures for review. If this happens the issue would be sent back to cabinet.

As it stands the first cuts will hit by the end of the month with the closures including Penwortham, Fulwood, and Bamber Bridge libraries.