The government has only conducted a formal public inquiry into a local council’s plans for library closures twice – once in Derbyshire in 1991, and in the Wirral in 2009. The role of the inquiry was to “gather information and provide advice in order for the Secretary of State to assess whether, in taking the decision to implement the proposed changes to their library service, The Wirral was in default of their statutory duties under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, including the provision of a comprehensive and efficient library service” (DCMS).
The role of the inquiry was to:
Gather information and provide advice in order for the Secretary of State to assess whether, in taking the decision to implement the proposed changes to their library service, The Wirral is in default of their statutory duties under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, including the provision of a comprehensive and efficient library service.
Below are the issues considered in the inquiry:
In formulating this advice and recommendations the inquiry should consider the following questions:
- Did Wirral make a reasonable assessment of local needs in respect of library services and, in any event, what are those needs?
- On assessment of local needs, did Wirral act reasonably in meeting such needs through their proposals in the context of available resources and their statutory obligations?
2. In considering the question of local needs, the inquiry should consider what assessment was made by Wirral (through the process of consultation) of local needs, and may wish to comment independently upon the following local factors:
- Local Authority context: equalities and population (including deprivation, geography, demography), budget, local priorities and sustainability;
- Service operation: infrastructure (incl. buildings, mobiles, digital and outreach services); resources; staffing; opening hours; service budget;
- Service delivery: value for money; performance data (incl. visits, book issues, user satisfaction); library leadership/management capacity; local partnerships and cross-authority working;
- Strategic vision: links between library service and key local strategies; current and future vision for the service.
3. In considering statutory obligations, the inquiry should consider and make an assessment, with reference to best practice where appropriate, on how effectively The Wirral’s library service addresses and meets the ‘guidance factors’ contained in the 1964 Act relating to the desirable elements of all library services, which can be summarised as follows:
- Securing and keeping a wide range of free resources (including books and other printed matter, pictures, sound recordings, films and other materials) , to browse and borrow in sufficient number, range and quality to meet the general requirements (and any special requirements) of both adults and children (living, working or studying in the local area);
- Free independent information and advice from staff;
- Encouragement for use and participation of the service; for example, through clear and easy ways to join, access, shape and influence the service.
4. Recommend, in the event that Wirral MBC is found to be in breach of its statutory duties, the practical steps they could be ordered to take by the Secretary of State in order to address this failure;
5. Execute all these responsibilities in accordance with the scope of the 1964 Act.
The inquiry should give interested parties the opportunity to comment, and take their views into considerations. Particular emphasis is placed on securing the contribution of the following groups:
- Local communities – those resident, working or studying in the area – including representative organisations;
- Community leaders including local Members of Parliament and Councillors;
- Key partner organisations
- Council officers – leadership, library managers, library staff and their unions.
It was found that if Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council went ahead with its proposals to close 11 of its libraries, it would be in breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act and the council withdrew its proposals. You can read the final report from the DCMS here.
The inquiry’s conclusions included:
- The Council’s decision to reform its Library Service in the manner proposed places it in breach of its statutory duties;
- The Council failed to make an assessment of local needs in respect of its Library Services;
- The Council has not been able to demonstrate that it has had due regard to the general requirements of children;
- Because the Council did not demonstrate that it had made an adequate assessment of local needs, the Council did not act reasonably in meeting such needs through their proposals;
- There was an absence of a strategic plan or a development plan for the service;
- Without adequate plans for outreach services, the Library Service as whole will not be compliant;
- The evidence submitted to the Inquiry indicates a demonstrable need for a physical presence of a service in some areas for the following reasons:
- Where libraries are located in an area of significant deprivation
- Where the Council’s decision on which libraries to close changed
- Where the Council identified an area of need but subsequently chose to ignore this information
- Where the Council has failed to meet its own standards in terms of a reasonable distance to travel
- Where libraries have interdependent links with schools and/or children’s centres