Ministers have been accused of “ignoring a looming iceberg”, after new figures revealed around 160 commercial property libraries have already shut their doors or been given to volunteers.
According to figures collected by Labour, a further 225 libraries have been singled out as at risk of closing by local authorities looking to ease spending. Handovers to teams of volunteers and current closures amount to a rate of around ten each month. Experts have warned sooner or later one in five of England’s public libraries could shut because of budget cuts by local councils.
The Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals has calculated that thousands of library staff have already lost their job because of lost services and shorter opening hours. Labour’s shadow culture minister, Dan Jarvis, urged the Coalition to acknowledge that libraries are facing “extremely serious challenges”.
He further added: “I hope the predictions of 20 per cent to close will turn out to be too pessimistic, but the current figure for libraries either closed, transferred or under threat since April 2011 already amounts to more than half that figure.”
President of the professional body for librarians, Phil Bradley, claims commercial property libraries are in the “eye of the storm” of huge budget cuts.
He said “further and deeper cuts” are to be expected this year and next year.
A representative for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said it estimates that merely sixty libraries based in commercial property buildings have shut over the past year. This does not take into account figures for closures of mobile libraries.
The spokesperson said several local authorities are also planning to open new libraries this year.
Meanwhile the future of Sheffield Libraries is coming under close examination as the council continues to battle to find savings to balance its budget. The local authority has revealed library closures ‘cannot be ruled out’ as part of the next round of Sheffield Council spending cuts.
The cabinet member responsible for community services, Coun Mazher Iqbal, said savings are necessary from the service’s £6 million yearly budget.
The council is currently reviewing the future of all 28 commercial property libraries, plus home and mobile library services, archives and the local studies library. An eight-week public consultation has been launched, with feedback forms available at libraries and also online, asking individuals how they use the libraries and which facilities they value.
Coun Iqbal said: “We want to provide services that are up to date and affordable.
“We are assessing the local need, what services are needed and what extra services people may require in the future, too.”
The council is in view of saving money by sharing library buildings with other commercial and public services and is appealing for more voluntary support.
No commercial property sites have been set aside for closure but Coun Iqbal said: “We cannot rule out that, depending on the results of the consultation, services could be delivered differently, some developed, others changed or reduced.”
The council’s libraries have 180,000 recorded users and the authority wants to hear the views of as many people as possible about the future of the service. Officials have carried out a widespread review of library use over the past year but have refused to issue the findings because they do not want to ‘prejudice’ the public consultation. They have also said they have yet to decide how much money should be saved from the budget. Concerns were expressed by opposition Lib Dem leader, Coun Shaffaq Mohammed.
He said: “There are difficult choices to be made in order to reduce public spending.
“However, when the Lib Dems controlled Sheffield Council, closures were avoided. I fear this is the first step on a road that will lead to libraries shutting their doors.”
On the other hand, while cuts are being planned to Sheffield’s libraries a significant choice was made in the council chamber to press ahead with the city’s first University Technical College. This new form of college will provide training for students aged between 14 and 19 in vocational and academic courses aimed at careers in specialised industries.
The UTC will offer a real alternative to the long-established school route and should merge well with the drive to create jobs through apprenticeships. This is a landmark decision for the city of Sheffield.
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