MORAY Council’s independent and Conservative administration today voted to press ahead with controversial plans to axe almost half the area’s libraries in a bid to help meet the authority’s £30 million package of budget cuts.
The ruling coalition threw out recommendations by senior council officials to reprieve three of the seven libraries targeted for closure.
And the council voted by 13 votes to ten at a special meeting in Elgin today to close all seven libraries at Rothes, Dufftown, Portknockie, Findochty, Cullen, Burghead, Hopeman plus one of the council’s two mobile units.
The decision, first contained in the council’s proposed budget cuts in February, will save the cash strapped council an estimated £357,000.
Councillor Allan Wright, the leader of the council, told the meeting that the council had no choice but to press ahead with the closure of seven of the council’s 15 libraries in the face of “frightening budget pressures.”
He said: “We will no longer be able to fund all those things that currently shelter behind the compulsory label and I believe that is increasingly being recognised by ministers.”
Councillor Wright told the council that statistics showed that, over the past two years, the number of visits to libraries across Moray had declined by six per cent overall.
And he continued: “But for these seven libraries that we propose to close the decline was almost 16 per cent. And in Dufftown - one of the three suggested for reprieve - it was 18 per cent.
“That is a trend I am confident will continue and accelerate as modern electronic readers become commonplace. It is the elderly who are the greatest users of libraries so the usage figures in time can only go down further I believe.”
Mr Wright said he rejected the conclusions of council officials who had recommended that the libraries at Cullen, Burghead and Dufftown be reprieved.
He said: “I am much more in tune with the financial implications summary. In that you will read that the financial pressures on this council will probably mean that the library provision will have to be revisited. I would like to postpone that for as long as possible by being brave today and sticking to the route that we proposed in February.”
Councillor Wright called for all seven targeted libraries to be axed and for one of the two mobile libraries to be discontinued. He said: “The reasons are the continuing financial pressure on this council and the firm belief that what remains is adequate for the future needs of the people of Moray.”
He was seconded by Anne Skene, the independent councillor for Forres. She said: “Having examined the arguments I am not persuaded to change course from the original February budget proposal.
The documented evidence clearly indicates a reduction in the numbers of individual borrowers and physical visits to libraries across Moray. Numbers have dropped significantly.”
Councillor Pearl Paul, the leader of the SNP Group, called for all seven libraries to be retained. She claimed: “It would be rash to close services at this time. There is no way we are going to be aligning ourselves with something that may prove to be costly to the council.”
She was backed by Mike Shand, the SNP councillor for Elgin, who accused the ruling administration of “staggering arrogance and ignorance.” He declared: “The libraries provide well supported IT access for people who should not be callously disregarded.”
Margo Howe, the SNP councillor for Fochabers and Lhanbryde, said: “I use the libraries as a hub of education and socioeconomic well being in the communities and I would consider their closure as a retrograde step. I think they have a great role to play in the future and I would hate to see them closing.”
Councillors were earlier told by Alistair Campbell, libraries and museums manager, that an extensive Equalities Impact Assessment had shown that the closure of the seven libraries and one mobile library would have an “adverse” effect on the elderly and people with a disabilities.
He said: “The overall impact is that access to libraries will be noticeably restricted both by distance and cost. This has a knock-on effect on access to book lending for elderly and families with young children and people with a disability. “
Mr Campbell warned: “Given the impacts, for the proposals to go ahead there will need to be an objective justification. This requires the council to demonstrate that the proposals constitute proportionate means to achieving a legitimate aim.
“There are therefore concerns that the council could be at risk of falling short of its statutory duty to secure adequate library provision and would thereby be exposed to legal challenge by way of judicial review. The cost and time implications of a judicial review challenge would be significant.”
He continued: “In the event of any legal challenge being upheld, the council could be required to increase its library service provisions, and where any of the library facilities being considered for closure are closed, the Council may be asked to reinstate all or some of those library facilities. Further, should any challenge be upheld, it is likely that the council’s reputation would be damaged increasing the likelihood of further public challenges and complaints in relation to reviews of other council services.”