Hertfordshire Liberal Democrats have secured an agreement that Herts County Council must consider how the libraries service is overseen as part of a proposed investigation of alternative ways of delivering library services across the County.
Faced with the need to find an additional £500m savings in the libraries budget, the County Council is set to explore the creation of an independent organisation or trust to run Hertfordshire’s Libraries.
While this may produce savings by avoiding business rates payable on libraries, Liberal Democrats voiced concerns about the loss of democratic accountability and control, should these much-loved community assets be managed by the council at arms-length in future.
Following a Lib Dem proposal, the council’s Education, Libraries and Localism panel agreed that the investigation should consider the effects on the governance of libraries services as well as the possible financial savings.
Steve Jarvis (Lib Dem Councillor for Royston West and Rural) said, “Whilst it is right that the council should look at ways of saving money, we don’t want a library service that is delivered by some sort of contractor in the way that roads maintenance is. We have all seen the problems this produces. Libraries and what people require from them are changing and the County Council needs to be able to take account of this rather than be locked into some sort of contracted service."
Charlotte Hogg (Lib Dem Councillor for St Albans North) added, “The council is pressing for more savings from budgets that have already been raided, and while its right to encourage efforts to innovate service delivery in the hope that savings can be found, this cannot come at the expense of public accountability. Whatever this investigation concludes it is vital that libraries do not become a remote arm of the council’s service provision with very little oversight, but remain part and parcel of the local community and are fully accountable as such.”
Mark Watkin (Lib Dem Councillor for Nascot Park and Opposition Spokesperson for Libraries) said, “Hertfordshire’s libraries have evolved a great deal in recent years, in what has been an extremely challenging funding environment. Continued cuts imposed on local government at national level by the Conservatives have meant communities elsewhere in the country have seen big cutbacks to services or libraries closed altogether.
"We don’t want this to happen in Hertfordshire, so if alternative models of delivery can safeguard and even enhance services long into the future it is right that they be looked at. But while we welcome investigation, we will be scrutinising the resulting recommendations very carefully, looking not just for a sound business case, but something befitting the role of the county council as the statutory public libraries authority, and with the appropriate governance provisions in place.”
A public consultation on the proposed new structure for Hertfordshire Libraries is expected to be undertaken in the winter of 2017/18, with details available in libraries and online.