By Local Democracy Reporter
Essex County Council has been accused of “moving the goalposts” over its consultation into planned changes to the county’s libraries.
THOUSANDS of people have been asked their views on Essex County Council’s plans to reorganise its library service – that could see it shut 25 of its 74 libraries.
Under the plans another 19 could be handed over to other organisations and community groups.
A consultation on the proposals ran from November to February 2018 and its results are expected to be published imminently.
But in an officer report detailing plans to replace Loughton Library – a tier one – ECC has added that because the library is not either a tier 3 or tier 4 “the library is not part of that wider review”.
While setting out its plans for a new library, while providing 27 flats in Loughton, the council added: “ECC is in the process of finalising its review of the library service across Essex.
“The draft Essex Future Library Services Strategy 2019 – 2024, placed current Essex libraries into four tiers, based on evidence of need.
“The library was identified as a Tier 1 library, and therefore has been identified as a main or ‘hub’ library, for which there should be at least one per district/borough, managed by ECC as part of its statutory provision of a comprehensive network.
“As part of that review, a consultation was undertaken in February 2019 which sought to obtain views on tier three and four libraries within Essex.
“Accordingly the library is not part of that wider review which is due to come before cabinet in summer 2019.”
Lib Dem group leader Mike Mackrary said: “That was not my understanding and that was not the understanding of the wider public.
“Some of the questions were couched in wording such as ‘would you be prepared for a tier three or four to close or to be downgraded if it meant a tier one and two would stay open?
“That does cover all four tiers. The future of tier fours are intimately linked to tier one.
“It does say somewhere in the text if it was within easy distance of tier one that gives it justification. I cannot believe they have said that.
“I don’t believe that is anybody’s understanding of what the consultation is about.”
It comes after a study from Dr Tarek Al Baghal, a survey methodologist and Research Fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, who has passed doubts on the methodology of the consultation.
He has criticised its “leading” and “complex” questions, prompting campaigners to call for a new one.
Campaigners against plans to close up to 60 per cent of libraries in Essex have also written to opposition leaders, to express their “grave concerns” about a motion from opposition independent councillors, including Cllr Chris Pond, being proposed for a full meeting of Essex County Council tomorrow (July 9).
In particular campaign group Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) has objected to the idea that libraries can be run voluntarily without paid staff.
The motion calls for the cabinet “to provide in every library service point, no matter how staffed or with what partners, access to the whole stock of Essex Libraries through established reservation and stock circulation systems, to provide access in every library to ECC computer services and databases as now, and to take every opportunity that partnership working affords to secure maximum utilisation of library premises and facilities, and to restore service hours cuts made in the last ten years”.
Andy Abbott, of SOLE, said: “It’s just bizarre, it was meant to be into the whole library service.
“Now they appear to be changing the goalposts. And that suggests something awry with the process.”
He added: “When SOLE was established it was agreed that the only way to run a sustainable library service in our county is through paid staff employed by Essex County Council.
“Volunteer led and community run libraries will not work. We can see from the very limited opening hours at Fitchingfield Library (six hours a week) to the problems Springfield Library has had in finding enough volunteers, this is already a model that is failing, and that’s even before asking volunteers to do so much more.”
He said the plans would result in the “eventual closure for every threatened library, all 60 per cent of them”.
“SOLE is proposing an alternative motion because there must be no acquiescence in this act of cultural vandalism,” he added.
Cllr Pond said: “My motion deals only with the service to users, I have emailed the other group leaders and suggested that if any of them want to put down SOLE’s amendment I will be very pleased.
“But what I was able to put down was constrained by what is called the rescission rule.”
ECC has been approached for comment.
Authorities: Essex County Council
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