Library protesters fail to write different chapter

Protesters' demonstration outside Sheffield Town Hall over libraries ahead of scrutiny meeting.
Protesters' demonstration outside Sheffield Town Hall over libraries ahead of scrutiny meeting.

Campaigners and opposition councillors failed this week in a last ditch attempt to force a rethink over the future of Sheffield libraries.

They pointed to 32,000 names on protest petitions, but the ruling Labour group stuck to its strategy, which it believes offers an opportunity to keep open as many libraries as possible.

The council has allocated £262,000 to be split between volunteer groups interested in running up to 11 libraries independently, helping them with costs such as heating and lighting. They will also be given access to the council’s catalogue, pay for volunteer training and IT security, but no council staff. The authority is now discussing business plans for the libraries.

Critics have put forward alternative proposals to spread resources more evenly, retaining council staff in branches, and they made their points in protests at the town hall on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ruth Woodhouse, of Save Sheffield Libraries, said: “Library users overwhelmingly prefer a different model that would leave all current libraries in council hands and share out any staff and resources available fairly across the 28 areas.

“This would ensure that ‘equality groups’ like those with disabilities, children and senior citizens would be protected. A comprehensive library service is a requirement of law, but we say the city council plans to sidestep this, as the proposals would leave only 12 of 27 libraries staffed and under council control, and even those left would lose some staff and hours.”

Matt Kik, of Save Totley Library, said democracy had failed. “The one thing we’ve always said we need above anything else is help from professional staff for independent libraries. It seems to be the one thing they are totally against giving us. It looks like the only thing that will keep these libraries open now is a lot of work and dedication from the public.”

Liberal Democrat spokesman Coun David Baker said: “It’s a matter of choices - even at the eleventh hour we gave Labour bosses another opportunity to change their plans. We’ve shown that by making sensible changes the council can keep open all local libraries with professionally trained staff available.

“No-one denies that difficult decisions are needed but local people have been clear that closing libraries is not the right way forward. We’ve helped collect over the 32,000 signatures across the city but still Labour politicians refuse to listen.”

But confirming the financial details yesterday (Wednesday), Labour says it has taken into account the views of 7,000 people during consultation, and the offer of £262,000 “should prove to all those who doubted the process of democracy that we are a council that listens and acts on what people say they need”.

Twelve ‘key’ libraries are being retained under the strategy, while five would become ‘community-led’ branches, receiving guaranteed council funding for two years. The remaining 11 would become independent.