‘Big Society' libraries under threat as High Court rules council's volunteer scheme is unlawful


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The Independent Online

The national roll-out of ‘Big Society’ libraries could be halted after the High Court ruled that a county council's decision to hand-over 10 libraries to volunteers was unlawful.

Surrey County Council "failed to have due regard to equality issues" when it decided to remove trained librarians from 10 out of 52 libraries in order to save money but prevent closures, the judge said.

This is the fourth successful legal challenge by local campaigners fighting large swathes of library closures since last year. Around 100 libraries have shut already shut, with another 600 under serous threat of being closed or transferred to community groups, according to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

In this case, Public Interest Lawyers successfully argued on behalf of campaigners that Surrey Council failed to comply with the Equality Act 2010 by not paying “rigorous regard” to the impact of removing paid staff on the vulnerable groups such as children, elderly and disabled library users.

Mr Justice Wilkie, who heard the claim last month, said: “In my judgment, the reliance by the Defendant on the same bland assertions that training would be required and monitored fell substantially short of enabling the cabinet members to give due regard to this obvious equality issue at the stage the process had reached in September.”

Mr Wilkie will decide whether to quash the council’s decision outright next month, though a council spokesman said the scheme could still go ahead as the case was lost on a "technical challenge”.

Councillor Helyn Clack said: "Our aim all along has been to keep all Surrey's libraries open and help them thrive, while elsewhere in the country branches are closing.”

The ruling comes as campaigners highlight several unresolved legal issues associated with volunteer-run libraries. Jim Parker, the Public Lending Registrar told campaigners in Lewisham that volunteer-run libraries could breach copyright rules if agreed royalties were no longer paid to authors for lending their books.

Shadow libraries minister Dan Jarvis today said: "Today is the fourth example of the High Court doing Ed Vaizey's job for him… The Tory vision of the 'big society' is an ideological cloak for diluting the basic premise that these services are a fundamental duty of a decent society, and should be treated as such."