Sunday, 30 November 2014

Lancashire County Council’s Library Closure Denial, spends fortune on County Hall canteen

Photo: Alexandrr P. Kapp

As government cuts to public services continue to bite, the Labour-led Lancashire County Council is considering all manner of service reductions - and the spectre of library closures is again on the cards.

The Council's consultation on proposed cuts to its services ends on 15th December.

Earlier this month, the County Council’s Cabinet discussed a huge range of what many regard as unpalatable service cuts to non-statutory services, including scrapping rural bus subsidies and closing libraries, along with making it harder for the elderly and disabled to qualify for home care and support packages and scrapping the youth service in an effort to plug a £15 million gap that has opened up in its budget cuts proposals.

Bizarrely, in comments made to the press earlier this month, including the Lancashire Telegraph, the Council's Deputy leader and finance boss David Borrow claimed the organisation had "never closed a library".

It seems Councillor Borrow either has a short memory or has been badly briefed. In 2006 the Labour-run county council closed Caton, Warton and Hest Bank and six other Lancashire libraries, despite fierce local opposition and campaigning by local residents and councillors, supported by the Lancaster Guardian.

As we reported at the time, the County Council closed the libraries to balance the books, but those closures were even then part of a wider crisis for Britain's library service, with some 50 British libraries, many in small or isolated communities, facing closure in 2006.

The closures came as the County sought ways to keep Council Tax rises down - voting for a rise of 4.9% at the annual budget meeting. Without making budget cuts, the tax rise might have been some 9%.

Both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives campaigned against the closures (how times have changed).

County Councillor Chris Cheetham, now retired, the prime mover in the Council's closure of the libraries, claimed people in the county did not regard libraries, museums, culture and the arts as important services - and then tried to suppress publication of his astonishing views. 

The claim was made in an e-mail to a virtual-lancaster contributor in March 2006, but Mr Cheetham then refused permission for his e-mail to be published, hiding behind the vague "confidentiality" footer that is automatically attached to all County Council e-mail.

Feeling his astonishing claims were in the public interest, virtual-lancaster requested copies of the e-mail under the Freedom of Information Act. The County Council's Freedom of Information officer clearly agreed with us, and supplied copies of the e-mail. You can read our full expose here

It would appear that there are those at County Hall who learnt nothing from that embarrassing incident, or perhaps are unaware of the actions of the Council in recent years. 
 
The County Council’s cabinet has agreed many cuts in a bid to meet government targets to save £300 million by 2017, including some 2,500 job losses. But rises in costs mean the gap between the savings needed and those forecast for the initial proposals has widened from £161.5 million to £176.5 million and council officials had to come up a full list of possible cuts that would affect a wide range of services across the county’s 12 boroughs.

Non-statutory services — those the County Council are not required to do by law - are facing savage cuts, such as youth services, libraries and subsidies for rural bus services.

(Despite being a largely rural County, Cumbria County Council has already axed all rural bus services, isolating non car users in villages such as Shap completely).

“Cuts imposed by central government and rising demand for many essential services mean that we have to find an unprecedented level of savings," says Mr Borrow.

“By April 2018 we have to reduce the council’s budget by £315 million. This is a very difficult task, given that since 2010 we have already delivered or approved £532 million of savings.

“It is clear that we have to take radical action to achieve those savings. We can do some of that by introducing more intelligent and efficient ways of working. However, it is also clear that we will have to deliver some services in a different way and stop providing some services altogether."

Thousands of Council staff have already taken voluntary redundancy as cuts to services began to escalate 2010-2011 redundancies noted here.

Strangely, despite the huge cuts faced by the Council, it still managed to find £84,000 to refurbish the canteen at County Hall, reported by the Lancashire Evening Post. In 2006, proposed cuts to canteen services at County HQ in favour of retaining the libraries that were closed were rejected by Labour councillors. 
 
• The county council is consulting on its budget proposals until 15th December 2014. budget calculator has been set up to show taxpayers how to set the budget and you can view the full documents on the county council website: http://www3.lancashire.gov.uk/corporate/web/?siteid=7010&pageid=43531

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