Central government intervention could provide a lifeline for Fylde’s doomed libraries.
Anti-closure campaigners have joined Fylde MP Mark Menzies in welcoming the announcement that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport’s has launched an official inquiry into Lancashire County Council’s decision to shut a swathe of libraries across the county, including four of Fylde’s five.
Lytham and Freckleton have already closed their doors, while Ansdell is set to follow at a time as yet unspecified after St Annes – the only one in Fylde set to survive in its current form under the county council cuts – has been revamped as a neighbourhood centre.
Kirkham’s library facilities, meanwhile, are set to switch to a new neighbourhood centre at nearby Milbanke House.
All those decisions were made by the county council cabinet as part of major cost-cutting exercise involving the offloading of some 100 buildings across the county - but the entire process could be back in the melting pot after the announcement of the culture department’s intervention.
Mr Menzies has received confirmation from Rob Wilson MP, the Minister for Civil Society who has responsibility for libraries, that the department had taken his concerns on board, will be treating the matter as a Formal Complaint and requesting the county council provides all relevant information regarding the changes to library services.
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Karen Bradley will then decide whether a local inquiry is necessary to determine whether the county council’s decision is legally sound.
Mr Menzies said: “I am delighted this issue is being considered as a Formal Complaint as it means the county council must answer serious questions over the process it has used to determine where to cut services.
“I, and a great many others, have raised some serious concerns about the council’s plans and the manner in which they went about deciding where the cuts would fall. Those questions have so far gone unanswered.
“I raised specific issues with the fact that Conservative Fylde would see all but one of its libraries closed while traditionally Labour areas of Preston were only losing one of nine libraries.
“The fact the council made decisions based on deprivation statistics meant that the hard-working, tax-paying residents of Fylde would always be hit hardest.
“Another factor used was access to public transport, something which was almost laughable at a time when the county council was slashing bus routes in rural areas of Fylde.
“I hope the Secretary of State looks into these decisions and comes down on Lancashire County Council like a ton of bricks over this disgraceful and unfair process.
“I accept that savings must be made by the county council but this has been one of the most blatantly biased consultations I have ever witnessed and has left an extremely sour taste in my mouth due to the disgusting treatment of Fylde taxpayers by the county council they help fund.”
Alex O’Toole of the Lytham Library Working Group, which is hoping to take over Lytham Library as a community facility after the county council closed it on September 30, said: “We’re very pleased that Mark Menzies has succeeded in getting the Government to confirm they will carry out a formal investigation into the process Lancashire County Council has used to cut library services in Fylde.
“However, we will continue to follow the process set out by LCC for the time being and currently await their feedback to our proposal.
“It is desperately sad to see the doors of Lytham Library closed to the public and we are absolutely determined to restore Lytham’s library service for the benefit of Lytham residents.”
Louise McLaren, chairman of the Friends of Ansdell Library, who have also put in a bid to run the service there as a community facility, said: “We are pleased that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are to review the decision made by LCC. This recognises the unnecessary obstacles that we have faced during the property strategy process.
“It was frustrating that LCC so quickly dismissed the genuine concerns raised by the scrutiny committee and did not take the opportunity to make the decision process more transparent and address the issues raised.
“The Friends of Ansdell Library still believe that the best outcome for local residents is for our libraries to remain open, managed and run by professional library staff.
“Short-term savings are likely to be quickly eclipsed by the real cost of dealing with issues such as social isolation, and Lytham St Annes is the area identified to be most at risk from this.
“We hope that the DCMS act quickly to halt the continued erosion of our library service.”
Mr Wilson says in his letter to Mr Menzies: “There is no set timetable for the Secretary of State to consider a complaint that a local authority may be failing to carry out its duties in accordance with the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.
“The timescale will vary and is dependent upon a number of factors including the complexity of issues to be address and the volume of detail to be analysed.
“All relevant detail will be carefully considered to enable the Secretary of State to decide whether a local inquiry is necessary to resolve any real doubt about the council’s compliance with its statutory duty under the Act.
“Please note that it is for the council’s elected members to decide whether or not to continue with the implementation of their plans prior to the outcome of the Secretary of State’s consideration of the complaint and determination as to whether or not to order a local inquiry.”
County Coun David Borrow, deputy leader of Lancashire County Council, said: “We have received a letter from the Minister for Civil Society acknowledging that they have received complaints about the changes we’re making to Lancashire’s library service, and that these will be formally considered by the Secretary of State.
“We have carried out a great deal of detailed work to ensure our proposals for libraries fulfil the council’s statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service, and I’m happy for them to be scrutinised by the Secretary of State.
“The changes we are making will contribute towards the huge savings the council needs to make, while ensuring that people still have good access to library services through an extensive network across the county.
“A modern library service is about far more than providing books in buildings, and we are planning to invest in and extend the reach of our mobile libraries, and meet the increasing demand to access digital resources, to ensure the council continues to meet its statutory duties.”