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Final chapter for mobile libraries

Thursday, 13 July 2023 08:20

By Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

Mobile library (Image: Libraries Unlimited)

Service no longer 'sustainable'

Devon’s mobile library service is to be closed, despite objections from opposition councillors.

The county council launched a consultation about the service’s future earlier this year, with user numbers down and three of its four mobile libraries coming to the end of their “serviceable lives.”

Around 3,100 borrowers are currently active users of the service.

In the last decade, the number of books being borrowed has fallen, although the fleet has also been reduced from eight to four vehicles in this time. It has led the council to conclude mobile libraries are no longer “cost-effective” and “not sustainable.”

At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the council’s ruling Conservative cabinet voted to decommission the vehicles and spend £25,000 on “transition support” for users to access alternative library services.

Meanwhile, the annual £217,000 cost of providing the mobile service will go to charity Libraries Unlimited, which runs the library service across Devon and Torbay, to help sustain existing services amid cost increases in recent months.

Devon’s cabinet member for communities, Cllr Roger Croad (Conservative, Ivybridge), admitted it was a “sad day” but “inevitable,” explaining that three of the vehicles are more than 15 years old and would cost between £600,000 – £800,000 to replace in total.

He said the £25,000 fund would be used for an “enhancement of existing and complimentary services, and much more support for community libraries.”

The move comes despite over half of users who responded to the consultation saying the mobile service is their only way of accessing library services in Devon, and they “would or could not use the library service at all” if it stopped.

Meanwhile, a further 28 per cent said the closure would mean they would use the library service less.

Many described it as one of the last services in rural villages, therefore becoming a place to meet, socialise and catch up with neighbours and the librarians.

A report to cabinet added: “For some who said they are isolated or unable to get out of the house much, the social aspect of the service is the only time they get to talk to people.”

At the meeting, several opposition councillors were concerned about the plans, urging it to delay a decision.

Cllr Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon), acknowledged the financial pressures but believed it should have looked at the issue three years ago and started to explore leasing options to help with a “gradual renewal of the fleet.”

He claimed the council had already made up its mind on the decommissioning, saying there was never £800,000 in the budget for the vehicles to be replaced.

“There’s a lack of truth, honesty, good governance in this report,” Cllr Connett added. “It is a report that you want to present to the public to evidence what you want to do, and that’s wrong, because the people aged 70+ who’ve enjoyed their mobile library service deserve better from you.”

He also expressed concern about the impact on rural communities, calling on the cabinet to wait until the next meeting in order to set out all its options.

Meanwhile, fellow Lib Dem councillor Martin Wrigley (Dawlish) reminisced about using mobile libraries in his childhood. “The big blue truck would be there and I remember climbing up the steps into the vehicle, seeing all of the books in there and excitingly finding the ones I wanted to borrow.”

He said it made “a massive difference to me personally, having that there,” and claimed he “probably wouldn’t be here today without that having been there.”

Cllr Wrigley said the council should “not be denying the rural communities the access to these services,” and that he was “fundamentally disappointed about … the lack of looking at alternatives.”

“We have to replace the service,” he told the meeting. “If you can’t do it with trucks because of the cost, do it some other way. Use some imagination.”

Henry Gent, Green councillor for Broadclyst, also questioned the decision. “Other councils are buying new mobile library vehicles and demand is actually quite buoyant,” he claimed.

“Other counties do think there is a future for some kind of mobile library service and it does rather look as though we’re once again underperforming relative to a near neighbour,” a reference to Cornwall buying more vehicles in the last few years.

“It’s a strange decision, when the whole economy is moving towards mobile delivery-based services,” he said.

A petition calling for a rethink was also presented to councillors by Torridge district councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin (Lib Dem), who queried the usage figures and said more marketing and sponsorship would help keep it going.

But cabinet member Andrew Saywell (Conservative, Torrington Rural), whilst agreeing it was a “sad day,” said: “The trend is very clear, unfortunately, that less and less people are using this service. And so, we have to look at how we deliver this differently.

The key, he believes, is how the home library service is used effectively, “to give people in isolated communities a greater choice of books that they can select rather than from a van that visits for half-an-hour once every three or four weeks.”

And fellow cabinet member Rufus Gilbert (Conservative, Salcombe) said it is an “incredibly expensive subsidy per head,” adding: “It’d be better to buy the books and post them to them, quite frankly.”

The report presented to cabinet said the “significant pressures on the council’s finances” mean the plans are a “reasonable solution to reducing costs” when there is a need for “considerable reinvestment in mobile library vehicles.”

“Whilst the service is well regarded by its users, the usage is comparatively low, does not represent a cost-effective means of delivering the service, and given the financial challenges, is ultimately not sustainable,” it added.

“Reducing the costs from this service will help to secure the wider sustainability of library services in Devon.”

Members of the cabinet backed the plans unanimously.

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