Six councils warned their libraries are sub-standard

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The Independent Online
CHRIS SMITH, the Secretary of State for Culture, has admitted that some libraries are under threat. Yesterday he wrote to 21 local councils demanding that they improve their library services and has threatened six with a full investigation by his department.

The proposed cutbacks are an embarrassment to the Government in what is the National Year of Reading. For the first time all 149 local authorities have been obliged to submit their plans to the Government.

Mr Smith said yesterday that 15 would be asked to carry out more work on their plans, and six others would be receiving written warnings.

Though the Government is not making public the names of the offenders, the six worst are understood to be: Barnsley, which is considering the closure of all of its 23 branch libraries, retaining only a central library and two mobile libraries; Surrey, where 25 of the smaller libraries might be closed; and the London boroughs of Islington, which has proposed closing libraries on weekdays, Brent, where up to three libraries might be closed and opening hours reduced, and Lambeth and Haringey, which have both proposed closing some libraries.

An added embarrassment for Mr Smith is that Islington contains his own constituency.

Statistics given in a recent House of Commons debate show that 10 years ago more than 200 public libraries opened for 60 hours or more. The number has declined by 49 per cent, and the number open for 45 to 60 hours is down by 19 per cent.

Mr Smith said: "Local libraries lie at the heart of communities across the country, and the Government believes they have a key role to play as `street corner universities' in promoting education as well as in tackling social exclusion by giving `information have-nots' access to new technology."

Mr Smith said most local authorities had library services "we can all be proud of" but he pledged to ensure that others provided a comprehensive and efficient service.

This means that he could declare some councils in default of their statutory obligations and order them to restore cuts.

No government has yet taken this course of action in regard to libraries, but Mr Smith said yesterday that he would do so if necessary.

"I shall take this duty very seriously and shall examine in detail the rationale behind proposed service reductions and other significant changes, such as service restructuring. I am therefore taking immediate steps to investigate the situation in a number of authorities," he said.

"When the Government has provided the best local authority financial settlement for seven years, unjustified cuts to library services are simply not acceptable. At the moment the service varies dramatically from one part of the country to another, and this does not seem to have anything to do with political complexion or geographical region."

Mr Smith said he did not want to name the offending library authorities at this stage as he would rather proceed "by agreement and consensus, and I think a naming and shaming exercise could jeopardise that.

"But if agreement and consensus does not work, I will have to think about going public with the names."