Essex libraries saved from the axe – but battle to keep them staffed goes on

Grassroots campaign stops council closing 25 libraries but await assurances over staffing fears

Grassroots campaigners Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) may well be celebrating after stopping 25 libraries from being axed – but they have vowed to “keep the pressure on” to ensure they remain fully staffed.

Essex County Council leader David Finch confirmed the changes at the local authority’s full council meeting, bowing to public pressure to say that no library will be closed in the next five years.

This follows 21,000 responses, more than 1,000 letters and 50 petitions – including one that had more than 11,000 signatures – which were sent to the council during a consultation on the closures between last November and January. They told the local authority how libraries were about more than just books – pointing to the computer access, educational value and space to meet people in the community.

The final libraries strategy will be approved at the council’s cabinet meeting on July 23 and will seek to “develop an investment plan to improve libraries” and “work with community groups to set up community-run libraries”.

Cllr Susan Barker, Essex County Council’s cabinet member for customer, communities, culture and corporate, said: “Our future libraries strategy has changed drastically due to what the people of Essex told us. I am delighted that the consultation ignited such passion for keeping the service alive.

“We assured everyone that their feedback would be taken into account, and it has – all our libraries now have a future.

“This is a new, exciting chapter for libraries in Essex. It will be a service fit for the 21st century that is genuinely in the hands of communities and local users, who can help mould it to what they want and need.”

However, while Essex’s libraries may not go the same way as the 800-plus libraries that have shut their doors since 2010, campaigners are still wary of the lack of commitment to how the existing libraries will be staffed.

SOLE, whose campaign was backed by celebrities David Walliams, Michael Rosen, Billy Bragg, Jacqueline Wilson and more, have voiced concerns that libraries will end up being run by volunteers instead of professional staff.

“We have always argued that every single library should stay open, so it is a testament to the power of our grassroots campaign that ECC has finally conceded this point,” a SOLE spokesperson said. “It is the people of Essex who deserve the credit for forcing this climbdown.

“However, we are yet to receive any assurances that all libraries will retain their professional staff, as well as buildings, stock, IT resources, and other essentials. Therefore, we won’t be celebrating until we know that these damaging plans for volunteer or so-called ‘community-run’ services are off the table, and we’ll be keeping up the pressure until then.”

Now the group are running an alternative consultation to further assess public opinions on Essex’s libraries service. That can be reached here.

Image: Robin Byles