Library services at a Scots council could be decimated as it struggles to plug a £14m budget gap which could almost double within five years.
Midlothian Council is to consider proposals which would mean replacing public library staff with self service and all future physical books with e-books as well as removing all school librarians.
The moves would save £750,000 in three years, but critics of the proposals say this is a clear sign of the perilous state of local authority finance. It is feared this is just the beginning of severe cuts to library services across Scotland as local authorities balance the needs and priorities of services they offer.
The council published savings proposals to be considered by at a special meeting of the full council on Tuesday, January 31. The proposals are to help bridge a projected budget gap of £14.481 million rising to £26.575 million by 2027/28.
Among the cuts which would hit the library sector, include removing staff from libraries saving £150,000 in 2023/24 rising to £781,000 by 2025/26.
Under the proposed savings, each of the nine libraries would eventually either be self-service, run by community volunteers or closed. By adopting an e-book service £144,000 would be saved from 2023/24.
Shifting the focus on libraries to online services was also suggested along with not replacing or refreshing the books or other materials on offer to customers.
A saving of £165,000 in 2023/24 rising to a total of £248,000 by 2025/26 could be made by a service reduction in school library service. This proposal would remove school librarians from secondary school libraries.
Independent advisory body the Scottish Library & Information Council (SLIC) said the council’s proposals showed “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the increasingly important role libraries are playing in their communities around the country during the current cost of living crises. They offered to meet the council to discuss the proposals.
Recent research revealed the numbers of books and borrowers plummeting over the last decade.
In 2011-12 the number of books borrowed was 21,380,156, but by 2018-19, that had fallen to just 14,690,455, according to Equality Here Now campaign group.
But campaigners warn service cuts to libraries could impact on attainment levels and literacy rates.
Sean McNamara, head of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland (CILIP) in Scotland, described the proposed cuts as the most damaging they had seen for many years.
He said: “These cuts are very concerning and some of the most damaging we have seen proposed in Scotland for many years. The local government funding model is no longer providing enough to fund all key services and this is a clear sign that changes need to be made, but these cuts go far beyond what any council should be considering.
“Removing all staff from public libraries would destroy the service and it would no longer be an effective or adequate service. Replacing books with e-books would also risk infringing equalities law and increasing the digital divide. And the removal of school librarians would badly affect pupils’ education as well as potentially reducing attainment and literacy rates.”
Mr McNamara said libraries support education, health and wellbeing, economic development and much more, adding: “these outrageous proposals would be deeply damaging for communities and risk the council not meeting its legal obligations to provide a service that meets the needs of Midlothian residents and we urge them to respond to the consultation.”
Pamela Tulloch, Chief Executive, Scottish Library & Information Council (SLIC) said they were concerned about the proposals.
Ms Tulloch said: “The library has always been a trusted, safe space, right at the heart of the community, and nothing comes close to delivering support for those using the service in terms of attainment, digital inclusion, reading and health and wellbeing.
“Councils are, of course, under extreme financial pressure, but it is hard to see how these proposals would really benefit the people of Midlothian – in many ways they could quickly become a false economy.
“We would be more than happy to sit down with Council representatives to discuss the proposals, and while we all must review the way we best deliver our services in today’s technological environment, this does not appear to be the right solution to the issues they face.”
MIDLOTHIAN Council currently operates nine libraries: Dalkeith Library and Arts Centre; Danderhall Library; Gorebridge Library; Lasswade Library; Loanhead Library; Newbattle Library; Newtongrange Library; Penicuik Library and Roslin Library. Mobile library services in communities would be reviewed.
In a report which will go before councillors next week, David Gladwin, acting chief financial officer, wrote: “The projected budget gap for 2023/24 is £14.481 million rising to £26.575 million by 2027/28. Approval of all savings measures would reduce the remaining gap to £7.196 million in 2023/24 rising to £10.554 million by 2027/28.”
It added: “The pandemic has accelerated financial challenges, exacerbated in recent months by very challenging inflationary pressures. There are some difficult choices ahead as Midlothian Council try to deliver services within available budget alongside sustained demographic growth from being the fastest growing local authority in Scotland. As a result, there is a significant funding gap that will impact on what services the Council can continue to deliver and how they are delivered. Reprioritisation and redesign is crucial to balancing the financial position.”
Midlothian Council Leader Councillor Kelly Parry said no decisions will be made ahead of February 21 when the council will meet again to set a budget.
However, she warned the council faces radical cuts and changes to the way it delivers services.
In its education service, a total of 174 teachers could lose their jobs over the next five years with more than 30 let go in the coming year.
Reducing teacher posts could save more than £6m in the years ahead.
Council Leader Councillor Kelly Parry said: “No elected member in Midlothian wants to make these savings decisions because we know how devastating they will be to our staff and our communities.
“Just like our constituents, councillors value all of our services, including libraries, but we must, by law, balance our budget."
She added that no decisions had yet been made.
"I must stress no decisions have been made and we are working really hard with officers to come up with the best solutions to bridge a budget gap of £14.48 million in 2023/24 rising to a projected £26.57 million by 2027/28," Councillor Parry added.
“We are giving local residents as much opportunity as possible to feedback on the savings proposals and what matters most to them, their family and their community. What they tell us will be considered before any final decisions are made at the 21 February budget setting meeting.”
Among the other cuts proposed include ending funding the Midlothian Community Action Team saving £436,000 in 2023/24 rising to £582,000 in total from 2025/26.
Removing lollipop men and women from controlled (traffic lights) and zebra crossings would save £153,000 in 2023/24 rising to a total of £306,000 in 2025/26.
Removing staff would range from a saving of £16,000 for Roslin Library through to £120,000 for Dalkeith Library. Self-service provision is already available out of hours at the Newbattle and Loanhead Hub libraries.
Midlothian isn't the first local authority to consider cuts to library services.
Elsewhere an East Renfrewshire Council consultation document has warned that funding could be withdrawn from school libraries, with public libraries also under threat.
Inverclyde Council proposed to close the Greenock Central Library and deliver a small re-investment in other branches, including increased hours in South West Library and Inverkip Library.
Colin Beattie SNP MSP for Midlothian North and Musselburgh said: “While these are just part of a wide ranging parcel of proposed budget savings options put forward to council members by officers I am very conscious of the value of libraries to our communities. I certainly would not welcome any cuts to these services and I am sure the council will be equally keen to avoid such.”
Owen Thompson, SNP MP for Midlothian, said it was unfortunate that councils have to be put in this position.
He said: “Councillors in Midlothian are considering and consulting on a range of proposals from Council officers and I know all are listening closely to the views of staff and residents before coming to a decision on any of these proposals. Its unfortunate that councils have to be put in this position but after 12 years of Tory austerity, councils and the Scottish Government have to work with one arm tied behind their back.”
Scotland’s local councils umbrella group has warned of hundreds of job cuts and savage service cuts while warning that a £1bn back hole in Scots local authority finances remains.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has previously warned that without additional cash from the Scottish Government, authorities will be “struggling to deliver even the basic, essential services that communities rely on.”