By Local Democracy Reporter
THE proposed closure of up to a third of libraries in Essex will worsen social equality and impact women and children the hardest, a specially convened Essex County Council meeting has heard.
The extraordinary meeting of Essex County Council had been called by opposition parties in a bid to end plans to close 25 libraries and hand over several more to their communities.
However an amendment was passed which stopped short of ruling out any closures but agreed to explore using libraries as community hubs.
The council had argued that book loans are down by 52 per cent in the past 10 years and the demand for computers is down 34 per cent in 10 years.
Fewer than one in five people in Essex is an active library user, while demand for e-books has trebled.
In a bid to slash costs by £3.7million, 25 of the county’s 74 libraries have been earmarked for closure by 2024, across areas including Chelmsford, Harlow and Basildon.
Another 19 libraries are also at risk of shutting down, it has been revealed.
In a report by the council on the Essex Future Library Services Strategy, it lists and categorises every library in the county.
However it had also been accused of adding to social inequalities.
Almost 60,000 have signed petitions opposed to the plans. More than 23,000 have responded to a consultation which is being analysed before a final decision is expected for each library in the autumn.
Green councillor James Abbott said: “This Tory administration has completely misjudged the public view.
“People are fed up with austerity. They are fed up with consultations that are simply about cuts to services. It takes so much of their time and draws people’s energy just to keep their services.
“Communities and councillors will each have their own reason for keeping a library open. For me it’s about the rural libraries Silver End, Coggeshall and Kelvedon.
“If the Tories close these libraries you are forcing people to drive or get a bus to Witham or Braintree. You are taking away part of our community safety net to prevent rural isolation.”
Cllr Tricia Reid, Labour, said libraries provide a quiet space for children in cramped, noisy and disruptive homes to study well and effectively.
She said: “The proposed closure of these libraries in challenged areas of Basildon offer an essential service and we are proposing to deny these students the access to much needed facilities.”
Speaking after the meeting cabinet member for libraries, Susan Barker, said there will be a detailed equality impact equality assessment for every single library.
She said: “I don’t want a single library to close. I want to work with the community but I need 74 conversations.”
She added it was not clear how much will be invested in those libraries that remain.
She said: “It has not been decided at all – some of our libraries like Chelmsford which is a tier 1 or Dunmow which is tier 2 don t need any investment.
“Somewhere else like Harlow needs a lot of investment – it’s tired and old and we want it to be new and exciting.
“There are so few libraries even in tier 4 which have not received an expression of interest either in the community or a dual organisation.
“If we have not heard from communities by June the strategy says it will close. But we will do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t.”
She added: “It is happenstance where our libraries are.”
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