Cuts put Durham's mobile library future in doubt

A MOBILE library service in rural areas could be scrapped under swingeing cuts planned by the North East's biggest local authority.

A MOBILE library service in rural areas could be scrapped under swingeing cuts planned by the North East's biggest local authority.

Durham County Council announced yesterday it was planning cuts to its mobile library service, which has seen membership fall from 7,800 in March 2008 to 3,538 in March 2011.

There are currently five mobile library vehicles, which visit 182 different communities over a two-week period, stopping at 380 halts.

Under the new strategy, it is proposed that the mobile library service will visit only communities that are at least four miles from a library building, with only one halt in each settlement the service visits.

Halts would be withdrawn if they are not used.

Council leader Simon Henig said: “The number of active borrowers now accounts for only 1.5% of the total for the library service, making the mobile service significantly more expensive per visit than library buildings.”

But Durham County Councillor John Shuttleworth, whose Weardale ward includes some of the most remote of the county’s constituencies, said: “Yet again it is the rural communities who suffer due to cut-backs.

“I know people who look forward to the visit of the mobile library as a highlight of their week and to deprive them of that small pleasure is simply inhumane.”

The county also plans to reduce town centre library opening hours to a core of 36 hours per week, with community libraries operating a core of 20 hours per week.

Meanwhile, the county council has also announced plans to hand over flagship theatres and museum owned by taxpayers to a charitable trust.

Facing cuts of nearly £150m over the next five years, the Labour-led authority is contemplating placing dozens of leisure and culture assets into a not-for-profit trust as early as next year.

They include flagship venues such as Durham’s Gala Theatre, Freeman’s Quay leisure centre and Durham Light Infantry Museum, Bishop Auckland Town Hall, Consett’s Empire Theatre, Killhope: The North of England Lead Mining Museum and Hardwick Park, Sedgefield.

The new as-yet-unnamed trust would be a not-for-profit charitable group known as a Non Profit Distributing Organisation (NPDO). One of the biggest of its kind in the country, it would have a budget of more than £30m.

The council would retain ownership of the facilities, but the trust would be responsible for managing and running them.

It would be run by trustees and a management board, although it is unclear who might sit on such bodies.

Council officials believe the change, which they say has been successful elsewhere, is a simple way of saving at least £1m a year in business rates and VAT,.

They also say it would allow leisure and culture bosses to tap into funding pots closed off to local authorities.

Next week, the authority’s executive cabinet will be asked to agree “in principle” to transfer into a trust the first batch of facilities, known as Phase A.

Councillors will also be asked to sanction further research into putting into a trust a second batch, known as Phase B. Coun Maria Plews is Durham County Council’s cabinet member for leisure, libraries and lifelong learning.

She said: “In these difficult times, the status quo is almost certainly unsustainable and a trust like this could prove the best way to protect and even improve these services.

“While we are currently considering the full range of sport, leisure, cultural and library services, further consideration will be given to exactly which areas will transfer prior to a final decision in the autumn.

“In-depth research will ensure we follow a tried and tested line that will deliver the best service for residents and the financial savings we have no choice but to make.”

The council’s cabinet will discuss the proposals at County Hall, Durham, on Wednesday, January 25. Final decisions are expected to be reached this coming autumn. If that is the case, the new trust could take over as early as April next.

 
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