COUNTY Hall is offering an olive branch to thousands of residents fighting to save their libraries.

A one-off pot of £450,000 has been created to fund services that residents want to escape the axe, based on consultations to be held in the summer.

So far, Oxfordshire County Council’s plan to cut all funding to 20 of 43 libraries has sparked the biggest public backlash.

The new cash could offer a short-term stay of execution for some, or all, of the threatened branches and allow campaigners more time to draw up plans to run libraries themselves.

But the consultation money could also be used to prop up other threatened services, including waste recycling sites and youth centres.

It could also reduce the impact of new on-street parking charges at evenings and weekends.

County Hall has already created a £600,000 pot to support ‘Big Society’ ideas, and at least £200,000 will be handed to groups wanting to run libraries.

The new fund was set up after Government funding for the authority was increased by £1.5m and council tax income was higher than expected, giving it an extra £800,000.

The Conservative-controlled council is cutting £119m from its budget over the next four years.

The library cuts would save £2m.

Council leader Keith Mitchell said: “People will have different ideas. But this [money] will give us a bit of breathing space.”

Despite a public outcry over libraries and high-profile attacks by authors such as Philip Pullman, Mr Mitchell said he hoped the cash would not be given on the scale of campaigns alone.

He said: “I would want to look at the ability of communities to respond so those communities not good at shouting don’t get muscled out by the people who are.

“If an area was losing a youth centre, a library and services for the elderly, we would want to look at mitigating the overall impact on that community.”

He said money would only be used to help keep branches afloat if residents could show they had credible long-term plans for their branch.

Campaigns have been launched to save almost all of the 20 threatened libraries.

Save Headington Library campaigner Sarah Eddie said: “This seems like good news but we need time to consider all the options.

“We are not keen to go down the Big Society route and bid against other groups.”

Save Botley Library’s Neil Clark said: “We are not interested in privatisation by a US multi-national or volunteer groups. We want them to reverse the policy, end of story.”

The council also announced funding cuts to 20 youth centres will take effect from summer 2011 instead of this May because the Government settlement and council tax windfall has given it a further £1.6m.

A 12- week consultation on library funding starts at the end of this month.

  • The council has begun “positive” discussions with managers from a US outsourcing firm who say they can run the service at a reduced cost.

Council officers agreed to meet Library Systems and Services after it claimed it could save millions and keep some or all branches open.

The firm is now studying the service’s running costs and will give proposals by February 21.

Council leader Keith Mitchell said: “The county council is willing to consider all options that would lead to a viable library service.”

LSSI UK vice-president Stuart Fitzgerald said: “Looking at central administrative costs of the library service can save them a significant amount of cash.”

Options are likely to include keeping all branches open with “sensible” opening hours and/or LSSI running about 35 and helping volunteers to run the rest.