Bennett to read riot act in court over library closures

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Campaigners in a London borough, led by the playwright Alan Bennett, have launched the first High Court challenge to library closures, in what could be a landmark case for residents and councils across the country.

Helen Mountfield QC yesterday applied for a judicial review of Brent Council's decision to close six of the borough's 12 libraries. Arguing on behalf of local residents, she described the council's plans as "fundamentally flawed and unlawful".

The Brent campaign has been spearheaded by Mr Bennett, who recently described plans to shut hundreds of libraries nationwide "tantamount to child abuse". Musicians Nick Cave, the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode have also come out in support of the campaign and have contributed legal costs to the residents' case.

The challenge could set off a wave of legal challenges to library closures. Cases are set to be brought against Gloucestershire, Somerset and Isle of Wight councils in the near future.

Yesterday, Ms Mountfield said that Brent Council had failed to comply with equality legislation before announcing their library closure plans in April. The borough has a population of 290,000 with 12,000 registered library users. Each of its 12 libraries was "treasured" by the community, Ms Mountfield said.

Campaigners protested outside the Royal Courts of Justice before the hearing yesterday and later packed out the courtroom. Margaret Bailey, a resident, said that libraries were "especially important for low-income families and their children". The council argued that its closure plan was "rational, made with great care and was based on a full appreciation of the obligation to act within the law".

However, Ms Mountfield accused the council of "closing their minds" to alternatives to closures, such as running libraries collaboratively with volunteer groups.

Speaking at a fundraising event in Kensal Rise in May, Mr Bennett said that children would be the ones who would most suffer from library closures. "The period after you learn to read is essential.

"Hinder a child's access and you damage a child for life," he said.