By Shaun Lowthorpe, Public affairs correspondent
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Library services across Norfolk are being reviewed in a bid to keep the county’s branches open.
Under the proposed shake-up, library users across Norfolk will have less time to browse for books as part of plans for a 10pc cut in opening hours.
But the move is designed to ensure that all of the county’s 47 branches can remain open.
Despite a £155m funding black hole in the next three years in the wake of cuts of government spending, Norfolk County Council previously pledged to keep all of the counties libraries open.
But the administration still needs to find ways of saving £1.5m from the service in the next three years and library users are now being asked for their views on proposals which would see average hours for each branch cut by around 10pc.
The county council yesterday launched a month long consultation to give the public a change to comment on the plans before a final decision in July and the new hours come into effect in October.
The flagship Millennium Library at the Forum in Norwich is not affected by the plans, although the administration is seeking views on reducing the opening hours of both the children’s library and the express Library.
However the council is seeking views on the remaining 46 libraries and is proposing a mix of later opening or earlier closing times particularly in the evenings or on Saturdays.
James Carswell, cabinet member for cultural services at Norfolk County Council, said: “Making reductions to opening hours at all our libraries is a good solution to help make savings that came out of the responses to the Big Conversation. The options we’re proposing, different for each library, will ensure that communities still have access to their local library at the times when our user information shows they are most in demand. For some libraries, the proposed options would see their hours reduce by only a couple of hours a week and on average the reduction across the county is around three hours and 45 minutes per week.”
The move is in contrast to controversial plans in Suffolk where the Tory administration had previously proposed axing all of the county’s libraries sparking a huge public backlash, and subsequent rethink by new leader Mark Bee.
Mr Carswell added that keeping libraries open was key to the Norfolk plan.
“We have a fantastic library service in Norfolk of which we can be proud, and this came through loud and clear in the Big Conversation,” he added. “We have always understood how valued libraries are and the important role they play in their local communities in promoting literacy, tackling exclusion and social isolation, and giving access to a wide range of information. Public libraries have an important place in Norfolk life, and we’re committed to keeping it that way. This is why we pledged to keep all our libraries open and still run by Norfolk County Council, and this is what we’ve done.”
Green group leader Phil Hardy said: “While reducing hours may be necessary, I would expect reductions to be tailored to each library to minimise the impacts and I would urge the council to revert the hours back to normal once the funding situation improves.”
But Labour group leader George Nobbs said he was concerned the public were not really being given a choice.
“It’s not what I would call a consultation, it’s a take it or leave it, so in that sense it’s artificial choice,” Mr Nobbs. “People have to be vigilant and they have to use their local libraries.”
Mr Carswell said the options had been arrived at by talking to library staff and looking at patterns of use.
“It’s really important to us that we get the views of the people who use libraries, and anyone with any interest for that matter,” Mr Carswell added. “All the responses will be taken into consideration before the final revised hours are announced in July. It would be great also to hear from any parish and town councils, community groups or individuals who are keen to work with us to support their local library – please do get in touch, whatever your suggestion and whatever you have to offer, no matter how big or small it may seem.”