OXFORDSHIRE County Council signalled a huge u-turn yesterday after it scrapped plans to cut funding for almost half of its libraries.
But council leader Keith Mitchell said that protests against the county’s original scheme to cut funding to 20 of 43 libraries showed the public cared more about the facilities than services for the old and vulnerable.
While the new scheme means all 43 libraries will stay open, there was a warning that the change of heart meant more cuts would have to be made elsewhere.
Mr Mitchell said he did not know how much money would be diverted or from which other services.
He said: “This is the one thing that people value above youth services, roads, social care, and vulnerable children. There’s no doubt about that.
“It’s a peculiarly British thing, because most of them haven’t been near a library in years. Like the pub and church in their village or town, they don’t want to see them go.
“It will mean a bit less money for highways or adult social care, but realistically we can’t go around stopping other cuts from happening, because the country is broke.”
He added: “Personally, I’m disappointed people do not rate social care – old people with dementia and young disabled kids – a bit more highly, but they don’t, most likely because they have no experience of that, but they walk past their library on the High Street most weeks.”
Mr Mitchell denied the council’s new proposals amounted to a U-turn. He said: “A U-turn would have been no cuts and we would have made them all elsewhere, and we have not done that.
“We have listened to what people said, and are relying on people to come up and volunteer in a relatively small way.”
He added: “We always knew this was going to be difficult. I knew people loved libraries. The sheer volume of people’s reaction, many of them who had never been near a library in their life, was a bit more than I expected.”
He said he was confident rural communities would be able to find enough volunteers to keep their libraries open, and that he hoped ‘friends’ groups would suggest ways of making branches work better for their communities, including the possibility of moving to different premises.
“We do not have a plan C,” he added.
The council leader said the proposals made last year, to end any funding of 20 of the libraries, had been drawn up at short notice and without knowing what the council’s final budget settlement from the Government for the current financial year would be.
He added that “we will never know” whether the council’s original proposals would have been found to be illegal had they been tested during a court hearing.
After considering the situation, the council believed only the running of 22 core libraries – including seven previously due to lose all funding – would fulfil its legal obligation to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.
Mr Mitchell warned the council “could not afford” to back down in the face of protests over other proposed budget cuts.
The council is planning to cut £119m of spending from its budget over the next four years.