The future of the last remaining libraries in Sunderland is to come under the spotlight after the city council revealed it is slashing the budget for the service even further.
A consultation is now set to get underway after the ruling Labour cabinet voted to ask the public for their views on what it calls ‘a future service model’.
The council closed nine of the city’s libraries in 2013, despite protests by campaigners and residents, in a bid to make savings.
Libraries in Hendon, Doxford Park, Monkwearmouth, Southwick, Silksworth, East Herrington, Easington Lane, Fence Houses and Washington Green were all shut.
Now, with further reductions to the budget in the pipeline, many are worried that further closures cannot be ruled out.
The cabinet report read: “Given the significant financial pressures facing the council currently and in future years, a number of reductions across a range of services in People, Place and Economy have been agreed by the council for 2016/17 and beyond.
We’ve actually had an increase in book lending over the previous few years, since this reorganisationCoun John Kelly
“These include further reductions to the Library Service’s residual budget.”
The report adds: “The outcome of the consultation will inform proposals to ensure that there is a sufficient and sustainable future library offer.”
Following the consultation, a further report will be drawn up by the end of the year, with any changes set to come into effect in April next year.
Cabinet member for public health, wellbeing, and culture, Coun John Kelly, told the meeting: “Following the annihilation of the Lib Dems and the Tories, we are facing further financial pressures. Our finances are under real scrutiny at this time.
But he said it was not all doom and gloom, claiming people are actually reading more following the library closures, adding: “We’ve actually had an increase in book lending over the previous few years, since this reorganisation.”
Coun Celia Gofton, cabinet member for responsive services and customer care, said: “I very much welcome a consultation. It’s a very good thing to have, but I think we have to make it very clear that this has been as a direct result of the Lib Dem and Tory coalition and for the last year, the Tory government.
“This is not a position we find ourselves in through our choosing. We are on the track that the Lib Dems and Tories have set out for us.”
Coun Michael Mordey, cabinet member for city services, added: “We’ve looked at putting library services at the heart of the community.
“We went into a partnership with Back on the Map. What we have created is a community hub and there are community volunteers working there.”
Wearside’s Liberal Democrats said after the meeting that they fear the review could lead to further library closures.
Earlier this year, a Freedom of Information request revealed that the council spent £182,280 on the nine libraries, since they closed. The money went on maintenance, utility bills and security costs.
However, the authority was keen to stress that, in the same period, it also raised £500,000 from the sale of former library buildings.
The council also says the libraries that closed represented about one-in-ten of visits.
Coun Niall Hodson said: “We have huge concerns about the future of local libraries like the ones at Kayll Road, Fulwell, Shiney Row and Ryhope that have already had their opening hours severely cut.
“Labour councillors have undermined our branch libraries and we fear they may now be trying to get rid of them completely.
“As part of this consultation the council must explore all possible options before closing any library – for example if coffee shops could rent out space in libraries to provide income needed to keep libraries open.”
Conservative Coun Michael Dixon said: “The consultation exercise is very welcome.
“If it proves as successful as the last one in 2013, when despite Sunderland Labour Council blaming Government cuts for every ill, it was obvious to all that use of libraries was on the decline and changes had to be made.
“The result at the former branch library in Hendon is a thriving community facility for all age groups and similarly at Doxford Park, a first-class Essence Service for people with dementia and their carers.
“We would be looking at further consideration of opening times and in the past have also asked why the computers in the central library are free for use, yet obviously cost money to either replace or maintain and hopefully this will be addressed. Further links with the University should also be encouraged
“I think this exercise will produce some interesting ideas and I look forward to them in a much more positive way than that shown by the ruling Labour leadership”