Birmingham’s 51 community libraries must not be subjected to indiscriminate cuts and closures as a result of the city council’s financial difficulties, a government watchdog has warned.
The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council said a review into the future provision of libraries should be based on sound strategic principles, well researched with public consultation and involve a long term plan to protect a comprehensive service.
Last year the body intervened in the North West, forcing the Government to order a public inquiry into Wirral Council’s plans to close 14 libraries.
The inquiry found the council to be in breach of legislation requiring local authorities to maintain a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.
A confidential city council cabinet review of Birmingham libraries will produce recommendations for a “service fit for the 21st century”.
Council leaders have been keen to dismiss claims that the review is a thinly-disguised attempt to save money by axing community libraries.
Fears that Glebe Farm, Kents Moat and Sheldon libraries in the Yardley constituency could close were dismissed in May last year.
It is possible, however, that the libraries might be relocated to share premises with neighbourhood offices or community centres.
The cabinet has also rejected claims that the review is necessary to generate additional money to run the new £187 million city library in Centenary Square. One idea under consideration is placing community libraries in a charitable trust.
The council would lose direct control, but could then claim boost its finances by claiming rates relief on the buildings.
The council’s 2010-11 budget, approved last month, includes £5.4 million of efficiency savings in the leisure, sport and culture department.
Half of that figure is expected to come from “organisational redesign and other efficiencies” in parks, sports and events, museums and libraries.
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council regional manager for the West Midlands, Michael Cooke, told a scrutiny committee that he wasn’t demanding a guarantee that all community libraries would remain open, but if cuts and closures were planned it had to happen in a rational way and be responsive to the needs of the community.
Leisure scrutiny committee chairman John Alden believes Birmingham’s community libraries require investment of £50 million over the next decade to bring them up to scratch.
Coun Alden (Con Harborne) said: “I am concerned that unless we have libraries within communities, we will let down the people of Birmingham.’’