Suffolk’s plans to offload libraries are confusing and uncertain, meeting is told

Councillors considering the future of Suffolk's libraries heard how staff had been reduced to tears by the uncertainty they faced.

A scrutiny meeting to discuss Suffolk County Council's plans to divest the library service took place at Endeavour House in Ipswich today . While protests took place outside, library campaigners told the meeting that they felt a 'gun was being placed to their heads' once the consultation paper was published in January.

The consultation documents were very confusing and lacking detail but the message coming through to communities with small libraries was: 'If you don't take it over, it will close.'

James Hargrave, from Stradbroke, revealed that his community had expressed an early interest in running the library, but it had been impossible to get details to allow them to make a bid.

When figures emerged it became clear that the cost of running a small library would be too great for the parish council to consider.

He said: 'The parish raises �26,000 a year while it costs �70,000 a year to run the library. That is too much for the parish to consider.'

The threat to his library – and to other libraries across the county – had sparked a wave of action from people who had never considered taking to the streets before.

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Theo Clarke, manager of the Chantry and Stoke libraries in Ipswich, said Suffolk's consultation process had shattered both library users and staff.

Mr Clarke said: 'We heard one day the libraries were closing, the next they were saved, and then that they were threatened again.'

He said there had been occasions when staff had been reduced to tears. He had no criticism of library managers who were victims of a lack of clarity from the centre.

'The only thing that was clear was the lack of clarity,' he said.

Judy Terry, county councillor with responsibility for libraries, said: 'The last few months have been a learning curve and we have all learned a lot about the value of libraries to their communities.'

She said the county was, however, planning to press ahead with proposals to set up a community interest company to run the library service. It would work with communities to allow them to run a service tailored to their own needs.

With some welcomed the news, others are urging the council not to allow a fragmentation of the service.

The findings of the scrutiny committee will be passed through to the county's cabinet, which is due to consider the library service at its meeting in July.

The key findings expressed at yesterday's meeting were: the county must offer more clarity to communities interested in running libraries; the county must be satisfied about the financial viability of bids; and that further expressions of interest in taking over libraries should be considered after it emerged that the future of all libraries were now under consideration.