South Gloucestershire Council leaders defend library cuts in deprived areas

A general image from inside a public library
A general image from inside a public library -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Reach plc

Council leaders have defended cutting library hours in some of South Gloucestershire’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Cabinet members have rubber-stamped plans to slash £273,000 from the authority’s libraries budget, which will see the district’s 12 branches shut for an extra 40 hours in total every week.

There will be a new weekly half-day closure at Filton, Hanham, Kingswood, Downend, Staple Hill, Cadbury Heath, Patchway and Winterbourne, while most will close earlier daily – including Bradley Stoke, Emersons Green, Thornbury and Yate – to give each the same weekday staffed opening hours of 10am to 5pm, plus three hours on Saturday.

Speaking at a South Gloucestershire Council meeting on on Monday, April 15, cabinet member for communities and local place Cllr Sean Rhodes (Labour, Kingswood) said all £200,000 annual savings from dimming street lights were being used to minimise cuts to libraries. Lights will be dimmed to a quarter of their brightness from 11pm to 6am, under plans also approved at the meeting.

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The original budget proposals were to reduce library spending by £473,000 a year. Cllr Rhodes said the smaller amount of savings needed, combined with feedback from a 12-week public consultation, meant the budget for books would go down by only half of the £50,000 initially planned and that all branches would have longer staffed hours than first anticipated.

But Cllr Liz Brennan (Conservative, Frenchay & Downend) told the Lib Dem/Labour cabinet: “We accept the reduction in the library budget was something you inherited but it was this administration who took the option to cut the services in the ‘priority neighbourhoods’.” Cllr Rhodes replied: “We have to balance the issue around footfall in different neighbourhoods, and actually the footfall for libraries is higher elsewhere than in ‘priority neighbourhoods’.

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“Disproportionately cutting hours at libraries with big footfall doesn’t necessarily make full sense.” He said many residents used more than one library so it was important to have a consistent service with the same hours.

Asked whether the council was confident of fulfilling its legal duty of providing a comprehensive library service, following concerns from trade union Unison that the cuts would threaten this, Cllr Rhodes said: “Officers have been in regular contact with DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) to ensure we’re remaining compliant with our statutory responsibilities for providing a library service.

"The crucial thing to acknowledge is that with the initial proposal, the potential impact of these changes was far greater, and officers have worked really hard to come up with a solution with us to mitigate this.

“There was clear opposition from the public consultation process to the budget reduction for buying books, so we’ve found mitigations in other areas. We originally needed to make a £473,000 saving from our libraries and initial proposals included reducing the number of staffed hours by a full day at Cadbury Heath, Patchway and Winterbourne libraries and half a day in Filton, Hanham, Kingswood, Downend and Staple Hill.

“But we are taking the £200,000 that we [save from dimming street lights] to bring that way down and reduce the impact on the reduction in the libraries budget.” He said the Open Access scheme, where residents can use libraries during non-staffed hours, worked well but the consultation revealed one-quarter of respondents were not aware of it, so this needed promoting.

Cabinet member for children and young people Cllr Maggie Tyrrell (Lib Dem, Thornbury) said: “We’re putting in more managed hours than originally proposed which is a really good thing because the amount of benefit children get from visiting our libraries is enormous. It’s not just about collecting books, it’s about the whole educational process that goes on with the activities in libraries that are there for children.

“The response to the consultation just shows we have listened to what people said, and although none of us wanted to have to make cuts, we have probably got the best out of it that we possibly could.” Cabinet member for climate and nature emergency Cllr Louise Harris (Lib Dem, Dodington) said dimming street lights protected the library service and was not only good for wildlife but people too.

She said: “Sleep disorders, depression, diabetes, heart disease and indeed cancer are linked to artificial light at night. It affects our diurnal and nocturnal activities.”