Consultation launched on making Northumberland libraries 'fit for 21st century'

A public consultation on Northumberland’s libraries is the ‘start of a journey to make the service fit for the 21st century’, according to the council leader.

Picture c/o Pixabay
Picture c/o Pixabay

At its meeting on Tuesday September 17, the authority’s cabinet agreed that a 12-week consultation will take place this autumn to gather people’s opinions on the future of the service.

A report to councillors sets out a proposal to establish a stronger ‘digital core’ with designated hub libraries in each main area.

These hub libraries would coordinate provision and support a network of satellite facilities ‘which may be Northumberland County Council-operated, community-supported, community-led or independent’.

The document explains that community-supported libraries are council-led and funded, but with significant support by volunteers, while community-led facilities are delivered by the community, usually without paid staff but with some form of council support – as exist already in Haydon Bridge and Heddon.

Presenting the report, Coun Cath Homer, the Conservative cabinet member for arts, culture, leisure and tourism, said: “The library service we inherited in 2017, it’s hard to emphasise how fragmented it was.”

She highlighted that between 2015 and 2017, under the previous Labour administration, visitors to the county’s libraries decreased by 11.5%, the number of books issued was down by 31.4% and membership declined by 12%.

Plus, in 2015-16, more than one-third of the staff were made redundant, including most of the professionally qualified librarians.

“Staff morale was really low within the service because of all that history,” Coun Homer said, pointing out that the service and its staff have since transferred back to the council from Active Northumberland.

“We are at the point where we have stabilised the service, but we now need to take it forward,” she added.

The report states that the council ‘is demonstrating its commitment to the provision of a comprehensive and efficient library service by planning new libraries in Alnwick, Morpeth, Ponteland and Cramlington’.

The cabinet also agreed to spend up to £100,000 from reserves ‘to support the accelerated transformation of the service over the next 12 months’, by buying additional books and enhancing the range of digital resources.

However, the report notes that the service has to make savings of £100,000 in 2020-21 and the same again the following year, which ‘will be achieved through a consolidated, more sustainable, network of buildings, increased collaborative provision and a wider digital offer’.

After the meeting, Coun Scott Dickinson, deputy leader of the Northumberland Labour Group, said: “This report is a cover for the Tories’ plans to build new libraries in Tory areas. It has no detail on proposals for the rest of the county.

“The report suggests a move towards more voluntary-led libraries which is essentially wallpapering over the cracks of nine years of Tory cuts. The Tories are stripping away our public services.

“Two years in and their habit of blaming Labour is wearing increasingly thin. People in Northumberland deserve better.”

As a statutory service, the council is required to carry out a public consultation exercise if changes are proposed.

It will aim to get the opinions of both library users and non-users via an online survey, with paper copies also available at libraries.

A series of drop-in sessions will also be held for residents to ask questions or provide verbal feedback.

The consultation is set to cost around £25,000 as it will be carried out by an independent commercial company ‘to ensure the process stands up to scrutiny and produces a robust report’. The initial findings are expected early next year.