"Walsall council is asking residents for their views on its plans to close 15 out of 16 of its local libraries.
The council’s drastic proposals to cut back its libraries, leaving just Walsall Central Library, come as it looks to save £86m by 2020. Cuts are also being proposed to Walsall’s New Art Gallery and other services.
In a statement, the council, a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, said that it had already saved £100m, but that it is now facing four more years of funding reductions in order to rebalance its books. “It’s been well documented that the inward pressures on local government are immense. Continued austerity will mean this authority and many other councils have to reduce what they do, at a time when we are seeing a greater demand for social care services from our ageing, frail population, increasing demands on children’s services and reductions in NHS spending,” said a spokesperson.
“The council fully appreciates that the Art Gallery and libraries are much-loved by those that use them however, like many councils across the country this authority can’t ignore the fact that savings have to be made. This is why we will be consulting with our public on all the budget options. No final decisions have yet been made, nor will they until we have listened to our residents, service users and partners alike to find the best available options for these services.”
The BBC pointed out that when in opposition, council leader Sean Coughlan had said that “under our proposals we will not be closing any libraries”. At the time, just seven libraries had been threatened with closure.
But deputy leader Lee Jeavons told the BBC: “When we looked at that last year, obviously we were in opposition. You don’t get to see the books in opposition in the way that you do when you’re actually in control.”
“When we achieved control back in May along with our Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues, we found out that there was an internal pressure in terms of the budget in social care which was already at that point, in quarter one, £5,000,000 overspent” said Jeavons. “Now, we don’t want to stop looking after old people, so we’ve got to look at ways of making that in-year saving and this is one of the options.”
A petition protesting against the closure of the art gallery and libraries, which says that shutting them down “will destroy the atmosphere of many surrounding communities”, has already been signed by almost 2,500 people.
The proposed closures in Walsall come as libraries across the UK are under threat, with more than 300 closing in the last six years. In a House of Lords debate earlier this month, Big Issue founder Lord Bird called the UK’s public library service “essential”, and asked the government to “supply some emergency relief money to stop local authorities doing this dastardly deed, this process of philistinising our communities”."
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