CONTROVERSIAl plans to merge libraries with Scottish Borders Council contact centres in seven towns and, at the same time, reduce their opening hours, will be determined by councillors next month.
But already elected members at Newtown are facing calls to ditch the proposals which are designed to save the local authority nearly £200,000 a year in staffing and building maintenance costs.
The community council of Selkirk, for one, is opposed to closing the town’s Ettrick Terrace public library and transferring its books and staff to the current contact centre at the Municipal Building to the east of High Street.
Chairman Gordon Edgar is adamant the integration proposals are “blatantly unfair” to the affected communities. Apart from Selkirk, the mergers are due to take place in Innerleithen, Jedburgh, Kelso, Melrose, Coldstream and Duns.
“The fact is that this is not happening in Galashiels, Hawick and Peebles and, as such, is discriminatory against thousands of council taxpayers,” said Mr Edgar.
The background to the revamp was given in a briefing report by the integration project’s manager John Meehan at last week’s meeting of the community council.
“These changes are necessary to move both services on to a sustainable basis within their communities, to improve the range of services offered, to improve access to those services and to deliver efficiences in lower operating and property costs,” said Mr Meehan.
He stressed that libraries faced challengers around declining visitor numbers and changed user requirements.
“The management and operations structure of the library and information services has not significantly changed over the last 15 years despite the changing role of libraries and librarians. In some branch libraries, professionally qualified librarians can spend up to 40 per cent of their time carrying out transactional front desk tasks – which are also very competently undertaken by staff on lower grades – rather than on service development and improvement.
“One of the aims of the review [of both library and contact centre services] is to address this and it would have been recommended even if there was no merger proposal.”
Mr Meehan said contact centre use had been declining for the past four years and in April this year, the centres ceased taking cash payments, resulting in a significant reduction in transactions.
“A number of contact centres are open without any customers for long periods of time,” he claimed.
The merger in the seven towns would entail a single group of staff for both services. Such management structure changes would offer revenue savings of up to £130,000 a year.
The required building work to deliver integrated services would be £360,000 but the sale of property would bring in estimated capital receipts of £290,000 along with annual savings on building maintenance of £59,000.
Mr Meehan said Selkirk was one of the least used libraries in the Borders, while the contact centre had considerably fewer visitors than other facilities in the region.
Under the option he and senior SBC officers favoured for the town, the library would move into the ground floor of the contact centre with reduced opening hours – from 10am till 1pm and 2-5pm Monday and Thursday, 2-7pm on Tuesday, 10am-3pm on Friday and 9.30am-12.30pm on Saturday.
“Closing the integrated services on Wednesday seems crazy given that SBC has just launched a bus service to take shoppers from the top part of the town to the centre on that one day,” said Mr Edgar. “This is clearly a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.”
Mr Meehan said SBC was due to discuss the proposals at its meeting in October, giving Selkirk community council until the end of this month to lodge a submission demanding the status quo.
Also hoping for a rethink is Innerleithen Community Trust chairman Ross McGinn who said townsfolk were “very angry” about the proposals to move contact centre services into the library.
The proposed hours of the integrated service will be 10am-1pm on Monday, 3-7pm on Tuesday, 1-5pm on Thursday and 1-4pm on Friday.
“The plan is for contact centre staff to be trained as librarians and vice-versa, so rather than two decent services we will end up with just one average service,” said Mr McGinn.
“This is purely to save money and it’s a slippery slope ... I urge all locals concerned about this to make the views known to their SBC councillors.”