MORAY Council today sealed the fate of four of the area’s 15 libraries by a single vote.
At a meeting of the full council in Elgin, councillors voted to reprieve three libraries - Cullen, Burghead and Dufftown - from the threat of closure but to press ahead with controversial plans to axe the libraries at Hopeman, Findochty, Portknockie and Rothes.
A bid by the opposition SNP group to reprieve all seven libraries, originally earmarked for closure, was defeated by 13 votes to 12 after the Tory and Independent administration staged a U-turn and cut the number of libraries facing closure because of the threat of legal action.
The ruling administration had originally won a vote back in September to close seven of the 15 libraries in the area in a bid to save the cash-strapped local authority an estimated £357,000. But, in a partial climb down, the council’s ruling administration announced earlier this week that they were willing to cut the number of libraries facing the axe from seven to four following decision of the Save our Libraries Moray campaign to mount a legal challenge against the council in the Court of Session.
Councillor Mike Shand, the SNP’s education spokesman, moved that all seven libraries earmarked for closure should be be saved.
He claimed the administration had “contemptuously dismissed” the equalities impact assessment on the proposed library closures, despite warnings of the possible “illegality” of that decision.
He claimed: “It was a cynical decision because of the mistaken belief by the administration that any campaign that ever did get off the ground would falter.”
Praising the “resolute strength and purpose” of the Save our Libraries Moray campaign, Mr Shand continued: “The reason for retaining all libraries are as true today as they were ten long weeks ago. All of Moray should be treated equally.”
Councillor Mike McConnachie, the SNP councillor for Speyside Glenlivet, backed the reprieve for all seven libraries. He said: “The public of Moray demand better from the ruling administration. The people out there protesting are the voters who put you in the position you are in today. They expected you to vote on their behalf on the subjects they hold dear. But it is seen by most that the administration fell at the first hurdle.”
He added: Changing one’s mind should not be seen as a U-turn but more a changing of one’s perception of public opinion. Changing one’s vote will be seen as a sign of strength by many and not as a sign of weakness.”
Councillor Allan Wright, the leader of the Independent and Conservative administration, tabled an amendment, removing the libraries at Burghead, Dufftown Cullen from the list of closures.
He told the meeting that the council was faced with having to save an “unprecedented” amount of money to balance its budget. And he continued: “The amendment is based on avoiding the potential costs of defending legal challenge in the Court of Session and the need to press ahead with the important work of reducing our annual expenditure by around another £20 million over the next four budgets.
“Clearly we cannot commit to a lengthy period of litigation with all the attendant uncertainty and the cost to the public purse as well as the council.”
Councillor Wright continued: “Reducing the number of libraries to what I still consider would have been an adequate provision was one of the unpopular decisions that are need to take to reduce spending by an unprecedented amount.”
And he warned: “Make no mistake - when a proposed saving is resisted that saving will have to come from somewhere else.”
Councillor Anne Skene, the Independent councillor for Forres, said the administration had been “persuaded reluctantly” to reconsider its original closure decision as result of independent legal opinion which councillors had now received.
She said: “The administration believes it would be irresponsible to continue with this strategy and risk unknown legal costs, not only to the council but also to the public purse.”
The Save our Libraries Moray campaign is to seek legal advice about the possibility of challenging the decision to close the libraries at Hopeman, Findochty, Portknockie and Rothes.
Stuart Crowther, a spokesman for the campaign group, said: “The outcome of today’s vote at Moray Council did not really come as a surprise to us but was all the same a great disappointment that not one of the ten independent councillors would vote to save all seven
“We are grateful to the SNP and Labour groups who both voted to retain Moray’s libraries - and we thank most of all the people of Moray and beyond for their steadfast support throughout our campaign to date.”
He continued: “Moray Council’s administration were today forced into what was tantamount to an admission that they were wrong in ignoring the findings of the Equalities Impact Assessment. Throughout the last ten weeks individual members of the administration have challenge Save
our Libraries Moray to put up or shut up - well, we put up and they blinked first.
“We are delighted for the communities of Dufftown, Burghead and Cullen. Now we will meet with our legal advisers and see what can be done for the four libraries that are still scheduled to be closed this month.”