Sunderland councillors to debate controversial library move

Lib Deb Coun Niall Hodson outside Sunderland Central Library.
Lib Deb Coun Niall Hodson outside Sunderland Central Library.
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Councillors are set to debate a controversial plan to move the city’s main library at the next full meeting of Sunderland City Council.

The Conservative group, a Liberal Democrat member, and an Independent member of the council have set their differences aside, and tabled two motions to discuss the future of the service, at the meeting on September 21.

Coun Peter Wood.

Coun Peter Wood.

The move comes after news emerged that the City Library will move to space at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens by the end of the year

The renowned Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art will also have to vacate the building in Fawcett Street, and could move to the National Glass Centre.

It is rumoured that the vacant City Library building will then be used as a base for a new Children’s Service Company, tasked with cleaning up the council’s reputation following last summer’s Ofsted scandal.

The decision was taken without residents being asked their opinion, and the relocation was not voted on by the council’s ruling cabinet, nor by the full council..

It is shocking that Sunderland City Council thinks it is acceptable to take such a big decision behind closed doors, without asking the public what they think or without asking elected councillors to vote on the move

Coun Niall Hodson

A consultation into the future of the wider service, has also been launched with a number of drop-in sessions being held across the city in a fortnight’s time.

The Conservatives’ motion reads: “This council notes that a further review of library provision in the city is taking place, particularly the proposed re-location of the central library, and believes it is important for all elected members to be able to make a contribution to the outcome of that review.”

Conservative group leader, Coun Peter Wood, said: “Libraries are a vital part of the city’s culture and it is essential that these proposals are debated by all councillors and not stitched up behind closed doors.

“Half a million pounds was spent refurbishing the central library barely three years ago and this investment could be wasted if the move to the museum goes ahead.

“Many community groups use rooms in the museum for events that benefit the city and they could be under threat if space is needed for books.

“The Labour Council needs to get to grips with library provision in the city and stop blaming government cuts for decision which are made locally.

“A proper plan for the library service is needed which uses new opportunities through electronic resources but also preserves vibrant branch libraries such as Fulwell.”

Liberal Democrat Coun Niall Hodson and Independent Coun Tony Allen, are bring in a joint motion to the September 21 meeting.

The pair will ask fellow councillors to approve consultation with residents about the relocation of the City Library and Arts Centre, and want the final decision to be taken by a vote by councillors.

Coun Hodson said: “Moving the city library and arts centre will have a massive impact on library users, on the work that takes place in Sunderland museum, and on our bid to become City of Culture in 2021.

“It is shocking that Sunderland City Council thinks it is acceptable to take such a big decision behind closed doors, without asking the public what they think or without asking elected councillors to vote on the move.

“That’s why I am bringing forward this motion at the next full council meeting.

“The views of local residents shouldn’t be ignored by the council, and councillors should have an opportunity to raise local people’s concerns and to vote on whether they want to move the library and arts centre or not.”

Coun John Kelly, Portfolio Holder for Public Health, Culture and Wellness, said: “The decision to relocate the City Library to Sunderland Museum is a direct result of the unprecedented cuts to council funding which have seen £253m taken out of our budget over the last six years, with a further £74m cut by 2020.

“We have worked very hard to protect the public from the worst of government cuts over the last six years, but we have now reached the point where this is no longer possible. It currently costs almost £1m a year to run the Museum and Winter Gardens and more than £250,000 a year to run the City Library premises alone.

“But this also needs to be seen in the context of the continuing decline both locally and nationally in the number of people borrowing books and visiting libraries. The number of people visiting the City Library more than halved between 2011/12 from 597,000 to 218,000. Over the same period the number of books borrowed also declined from 318,000 to 202,000. Following the decision to take library services out into communities in 2013 more people are also taking advantage of being able to borrow library books closer to home with around 30,000 books out on loan through community book collections at any one time.

“We understand and share people’s frustrations that we can no longer deliver the same level of services but we believe bringing the two together will help secure the future of both the library and the museum. There will also be benefits in terms of accessibility, library users being able to use the café and shop at the museum and closer working. We also hope that the move will encourage people who would usually visit only the library or museum to visit both.”

People have until 21 October to make their views known on the future shape of library services across the city.

The questionnaire is available online at: http://sunderland-consult.limehouse.co.uk/public/city_services/culture_and_tourism/library_review_consultation

People can also complete the questionnaire at a number of drop in sessions.

They are at:

City Library, from 3.30pm to 5pm, on September 20;

Sandhill Library, from 10am to 11.30am, on September 22;

Bunny Hill Library, from 3pm to 4.30pm, on September 23;

Houghton Library, from 11am to 12.30am, on September 26;

Washington Town Centre Library, from 9.30am to 11am, on September 29.