‘Lip service’ claim over library cuts

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IF councillors vote today for the merger of contact centres and public libraries, with a cut in the opening hours of the latter in four towns, they must be prepared to face the wrath of voters at the May elections.

That was the warning this week from Tim Clancey, the member of Innerleithen community council who organised a petition of 1,000 signatures, a third of the town’s population, against the changes.

He said policy changes on library opening hours paid “no more than lip service” to concerns expressed about changes.

The controversial proposals, designed to save £130,000 a year by cutting total full-time equivalent staff and retraining those that remain in multi-tasking roles – along with a further £60,000 on building maintenance savings – have been slightly revised since October.

Then, Tweeddale East councillor Graham Garvie, SBC’s executive member for culture and community learning, intervened to defer a decision pending consideration by senior officers because of “a hugely negative” public response.

At that time, he said he was determined “there should be no reduction in library hours anywhere in the Borders”.

But a report by chief executive Tracey Logan and education director Glenn Rodger for today’s full council meeting in Newtown has forced Mr Garvie to clarify his commitment.

“My determination not to reduce library hours was obviously predicated on where there is a clear and growing demand for the service,” he told us.

But he added: “My other determination, then and now, is that even in these straitened financial times, there would be no closures of any libraries in the Borders and the establishment of an integrated service, with associated savings, facilitates this.”

Today’s report, which councillors are being asked to support, seeks integration in Selkirk, Jedburgh, Innerleithen, Kelso, Coldstream and Duns.

The council has decided to remove Melrose, which has no contact centre, from its plans, because local people at a consultation meeting indicated there was no demand for the service. Library hours there will remain unchanged and the notional saving will be transferred to maintain library opening hours in Innerleithen, where the library will be run under the management of customer services.

And, as predicted in these columns last month, there will further “extensive public consultation” in Selkirk about whether the library in Ettrick Terrace or the contact centre in High Street should host the new merged facility.

The upshot, however, is that, if the report is approved today, library hours will be cut from 33 to 25 in Selkirk and Jedburgh, 34 to 33 in Duns and 13 to 12 in Coldstream. They remain unchanged in Kelso and Innerleithen at 33 and 16 hours respectively.

That has not satisfied Mr Clancey who told us: “These revised proposals, despite the massive outcry from affected communities, pay no more than lip service to the concerns expressed, which have been acknowledged but not addressed.

“One justification for these proposals is that they will ‘permit professional librarians to concentrate on supporting and developing library services within the integrated sites and the remainder of the library service’.

“We have already seen this approach applied elsewhere in SBC services: for example where nursery classes are only taught by professional teachers for a few hours a week and by support staff the rest of the time. A likely outcome is that we will lose some of the excellent librarians we have and those who remain will become peripatetic and only based in each library for a few hours each week.”

Mr Clancey, noting that today’s report states that opening hours and usage of all libraries and contact centres will be reviewed every year, added: “This means opening hours will be vulnerable to cuts year on year, affecting the quality of service and leading to less usage as a result – a vicious circle.

“The attempt to reassure us that levels of library service will continue insults the intelligence of anyone who reads the report.

“All those who use libraries in the Borders and all those who recognise the educational and community benefits that a thriving, well-run library brings – the value for money they provide is extraordinary – have been let down badly by these proposals.

“If our SBC councillors vote through the proposals, they will have let our communities down badly and it is up to us to hold them accountable for this when many of them seek re-election next May.”