A landmark hearing on Tuesday will mark the first judicial review into proposed library closures in Britain as disgruntled campaigners prepare to take their case to the courts.
The High Court is examining the planned closure of six libraries in the London Borough of Brent, and its ruling will be keenly watched by councils around the country. Following close behind are Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wight, where protesters have won permission to have their cases heard by the end of the year. Experts believe they could trigger a flood of similar cases.
Brent council invited a number of "community-based rescue plans" that it allegedly did not take into full consideration in its final decision. The court will also examine whether the consultation process that decided the future of libraries across the country was conducted fairly and in line with the correct legal framework.
Experts believe that the outcome of the review could be a major embarrassment for David Cameron's government, which has hitherto distanced itself from the library closures, insisting it is a local government issue.
The Government came under fire from the author Kate Mosse yesterday over its refusal to intervene. She said: "There has been a naive belief on the part of government and local authorities that after the initial objections, public anger would wane. Instead it is the precise opposite: the anger has simply exacerbated."
In a scathing assessment she said there had been "a catastrophic failure of leadership" from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the Arts Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The timing of the Brent review coincides with a deadline for library tenders in Wokingham amid speculation that its library servicies could be outsourced to a private American firm by the end of this year.
Lawyers say that they will be probing the Government's line in relation to Section 10 of the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act, which decrees that all public complaints over libraries should go to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
"Dozens, possible hundreds [of complaints] have been made by Brent residents which must under law be investigated by the Secretary of State. The closures will generally hit the poor, children, older people, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities far harder than others. It also examines just what fairness demands when library closures are proposed," said John Halford, from Bindmans LLP solicitors.
"The threatened libraries are important for everyone who lives, studies or works locally, but especially for low-income families and their children," said Margaret Bailey, one of the Brent campaigners. "We are determined to ensure the libraries remain open and trust that the court will quickly see Brent's decisions are senseless. Both legally and otherwise."
Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys and Goldfrapp are among the stars who have contributed to legal costs.
A DCMS spokesman said: "We continue to monitor and assess proposals and decisions being made about changes to library services across England. We take very seriously compliance by local authorities with their statutory duty to understand the local needs for library services and to provide a comprehensive and efficient service to match that need. Use of ministerial statutory powers, including those regarding intervention, continues to be kept under consideration on a case-by-case basis."
Additional reporting by Charlotte Sundberg and Phillip Wood
The authors' voice: 'We are the people of England that have never spoken yet'
Beatrix Campbell "The Government has completely underestimated who uses libraries and why they're important to people. They are just as essential for me today as they are for my one-year-old grandson, whose first experience of the public world was in a library."
Kate Mosse "The idea that we are all in this together was blown apart when the Government stood back and allowed libraries to close. It has been left to the great British public and thankfully the Government will now see how this issue will simply not be left alone."
Robert Harris "This situation is indicative of a famous GK Chesterton quote: 'But we are the people of England that have never spoken yet.' Well, the people are about to speak, and if they are a minority they are a very articulate, literate and unignorable one."
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