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Library groups seek legal advice
LIBRARY campaigners will seek legal advice after councillors backed changes which will see 21 branches across Oxfordshire forced to rely on volunteer staff.
Last night, Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet approved a restructuring set to save £986,000, despite a string of library users urging them to re-draw the plans.
Some Friends groups indicated they would not actively encourage people to volunteer at libraries in a last ditch attempt to save professional staff.
Under the changes, all 43 libraries will remain open, but five will need to find volunteers to provide a third of staffing, and a further 16 will rely on members of the public to make up half of the workforce.
Council officers revealed the changes could see single volunteers manning libraries alone in rural locations.
Save Oxfordshire Libraries chairman Judith Wardle told the Oxford Mail: “There will be a number of Friends groups that will say ‘no way’ to volunteering. Of all the responses to the consultation, there was not a single Friends group that thinks it could do it.”
Library campaigners said they would ask lawyers to examine whether the council’s consultation and methodology of determining which libraries provide the statutory “comprehensive and efficient service” were legal.
But county council leader Keith Mitchell warned anyone planning a legal challenge: “We have worked very hard to make sure we fully comply with the legal requirements. I hope they won’t waste much of their money, and won’t waste any of ours.”
Campaigners from Kennington, Bampton, Charlbury, Goring, Old Marston, Watlington, Wheatley, Woodcote and Woodstock all addressed councillors, urging them not to force their library branches to rely on volunteers.
They argued the council’s methodology was biased against rural areas, volunteers would not come forwards, and that the withdrawal of staff did not comply with legal requirements.
Christopher Quentin, of our Woodcote Library, labelled the process a “sham”.
But council director of social and community services, John Jackson, said County Hall was still funding 81 per cent of costs at volunteer-staffed libraries, and the needs of library users across the county would be reassessed at least every four years. The assessment method was sound and based on legal advice, he said.
Councillor Judith Heathcoat, overseeing the plans, said continuing to fund all 43 Oxfordshire libraries left “wriggle room” in the future. She said: “Should the economic situation change, then the financial support given by the county council could be reviewed.”
Council officers will now work with Friends groups and local communities to find specific solutions to provide staffing in libraries.
Cabinet members said they hoped opening hours could be extended, and parishes could raise their council tax precepts to provide extra funds.
Acting county librarian Karen Warren said 140 volunteers already ran children’s Rhyme Time sessions and offered IT training in libraries, and 461 had put their names forwards during the consultation.