THE library in Summertown could be converted into an autism unit if planned cuts go ahead, Oxfordshire County Council has confirmed.

The council, which has listed the South Parade branch amongst 20 libraries set to lose funding next year, said it was considering changing the building’s use, but insisted no decision had been made.

The council has said it wouldsupport community groups wanting to convert libraries into community-run facilities as part of the Government’s ‘Big Society’ drive.

But it would not confirm whether the newly-formed Friends of Summertown Library would get first refusal on the building and its volunteer-run sculpture garden.

Spokesman Marcus Mabberley said: “One possible alternative use for the Summertown Library building is being considered – as a specialist autism unit – however it is essential to remember that no decision has been made.

“It is difficult to discuss ‘Big Society’ proposals in general terms as detail could only be discussed if or once individual proposals are put forward. The county council would do everything it could within its constrained resources to assist any ‘Big Society’ library proposals that it might receive, whether that might be for services to potentially operate from existing library buildings or elsewhere.”

The autism unit at St Nicholas Primary School, Marston, is over-subscribed and the Oxfordshire Autistic Society for Information and Support (OASIS) said there was need for extra provision in the city.

But Tamara Thomas, of the Friends of Summertown Library, questioned whether converting the library into an autism unit would comply with the Government’s Localism Bill, currently going through Parliament, which would give communities the right to buy facilities threatened with closure.

She said: “Obviously we welcome any support given to people with autism and their families.

“But this place is a library at the moment and 120,000 people use it every year.

“The big question is whether we will be able to run a library in Summertown without those premises. And why is the council carrying out the consultation when it appears already to have made a decision?”

At a packed public meeting in North Oxfordshire Community Centre earlier this month, Inspector Morse creator Colin Dexter branded the funding cuts as “shocking and shameful”.

Fellow Summertown library users said they feared the county council wanted to sell the building.

Former trader Michael Greenwood said: “If we lose the building, then we lose the library.

“For the library to be effective in Summertown, it needs to be in the middle of somewhere around the shops so people visiting can do things at the same time.”

And Liberal Democrat city councillor Alan Armitage said: “My biggest fear is another pizza restaurant will come along, offer a lot of money to the county council for that building, and it will find it very hard to resist.”