COUNTY HALL is abandoning controversial plans to end funding to almost half the county’s libraries.

Oxfordshire County Council leader Keith Mitchell told The Oxford Times that the proposals had been “torn up”, with the council preparing to “rethink” its library policy.

The planned funding cuts led to months of protests over fears that many local libraries would be forced to close.

Mr Mitchell pledged that council officers would now be working with local communities on “a library-by-library basis” in an effort to avoid any closures.

In November, the council said it would stop funding to 20 of the county’s 43 libraries.

But in what will be seen as a major U-turn, Mr Mitchell said the council now wanted to begin working with local people “with the slate clean”.

Mr Mitchell said: “You can say that it has been torn up. We are starting with a blank piece of paper. We are looking at all options. No decisions have been taken. Officers are working hard to rethink the process.”

While being unable to guarantee that every single library in the county would remain open, he said: “It would be wonderful if that could be achieved.

“We will be working hard to see what we can do. I want the council to work hand in hand with local communities to find a way to keep libraries open and to forge ahead with creating a modern service.”

A consultation into the future of the county’s library service will begin in mid-May, running until September.

Mr Mitchell’s ‘olive branch’ to library campaign groups, however, came with a warning that savings would still have to be made.

And he made clear that he still believed keeping libraries open “in certain places” would only be possible if volunteers came forward to help run them.

Mr Mitchell said he wanted to see a network of library ‘friends’ groups created across the county, who could work with council staff to agree “the best way forward”.

He said professional staff remained the biggest cost of running a library system and that he envisaged qualified library staff being available to assist with the training of volunteers, with the council offering all libraries access to the county’s stock of a million books, computer order system and library buildings.

He said the council would also be ready to discuss options such as self-service, changing opening hours and even Sunday openings.

Sylvia Vetta, chairman of the Friends of Kennington Library group, said: “It seems that Mr Mitchell has moved an awful long way. It seems positive and we hope his statement is a preliminary to genuine consultation.

“I think there is a role for volunteers. Sadly, Mr Mitchell has not said that every library will have a qualified librarian.

But in November when we received the news of the library closure policy, no one would have believed Mr Mitchell’s statement possible. Our co-ordinated campaign should celebrate this.”

Judith Wardle, chairman of the Save Oxfordshire Libraries group, said: “We welcome the measured tones of Mr Mitchell’s response. We are pleased he is saying that he wants to provide free access to buildings, books and qualified librarians. I’m sure libraries will want to negotiate with the council, although our group will continue so we can support each other.

“One worry is about how much ‘friends’ groups can be expected to do.”

Mr Mitchell, pictured, said the idea of outsourcing library services to a private company remained an option.