A COUNCILLOR has branded the decision to close the area's library as "incomprehensible" and said she believes there is "unconscious bias" in the local authority's decision making.

The Star reported that six libraries in the borough are in line to be closed at the end of October, unless prospective partners come forward to help them become "community managed" facilities.

St Helens' current service includes 13 libraries, although Billinge Library, on Main Street, has been temporarily closed due to the condition of its roof and floor.

The Labour-run council’s cabinet approved the adoption of a library service strategy and the implementation of the delivery plan 2022-2027 earlier this month which could see the number of facilities in the borough reduced to seven.

St Helens Council leader David Baines said the decision is of the most "difficult" choices the local authority has had to make.

The closure decisions come against the backdrop of ongoing council budget pressures due to a reduction in Government funding over the past decade and rising costs of social care.

The council says the findings of consultation and engagement exercises have been considered and are reflected in the final library strategy and delivery plan.

These include the eventual relocation of St Helens Library to a refurbished Gamble Building, making it a “state-of-the-art cultural centre”.

The council says it welcomes contact from any prospective partners to discuss support required to deliver a community-managed library.

But should no community partners be “forthcoming” to support the delivery of community-managed libraries, the council says “it may be necessary” to close six buildings from October 31, namely Billinge Library, Garswood Library, Parr Library, Peter Street Library, Rainford Library and Rainhill Library.

Cllr Mussell has suggested there is unconscious bias in decision-making, because Billinge, Rainford and Rainhill libraries - which have opposition councillors - are facing closure.

But Labour has countered that claim, pointing out that areas such as Haydock, Eccleston and Bold - which have opposition contingents - will still have council-run libraries, meaning the argument is deeply flawed.

Rainford closure - 'incomprehensible'

Rainford councillor Linda Mussell has hit out at the decision to close the village's library which she called "incomprehensible".

St Helens Star: Cllr Linda MussellCllr Linda Mussell

The Conservative councillor said: "When you consider that we have an ageing population, with Rainford being a prime example of this, as the main demographic is over 65, l find it incomprehensible that this council has decided to close the library in Rainford.

"We must remember that many grandparents now nationally as well in Rainford are childminders to grandchildren. Therefore the opportunity for the grandparents to take their grandchildren to the local library, for some intergenerational learning and quality time, as well as the excitement of the visit the children feel, which I certainly did, all this is lost.

"The library, it is more than a place for books, it is a community hub, an information centre, together with a mental wellbeing portal as it is a place for people to meet as with an ageing population there will be widows and widowers. Public health, early years improving life chances for everyone."

Cllr Mussell added: "Not all people have access to a vehicle and to suggest that the alternatives is that the residents of Rainford it is either central library or Moss Bank Library is a somewhat ill-conceived and ill-judged option, not least the frequency and the logistical positioning of public transport to these places.

"The World of Glass where the Central Library is currently located it is a half a mile walk from the bus station in St Helens. To get to Moss Bank Library is even more of a calamity. Forgetting any legwork, it is a bus into St Helens, which is only every hour then a bus to Moss Bank ridiculous."

The councillor pointed out that three of wards affected by the closures – Rainhill, Rainford and Billinge – have opposition councillors and raised concern whether this could affect the Labour-run council's thinking.

She added: "I do believe that there is perhaps some unconscious bias in decision making at St Helens Council and Rainford, we only ask for a fair distribution for our investment."

Speaking at last week's meeting Cllr Baines highlighted that "some people were in favour" of having just one library in the entire borough which he was "strongly against", which is why that plan "did not come forward".

He said: “Item five today, we heard about the financial monitoring report and we’ll hear in the next quarter the same story, and the quarter after that and the quarter after that and the quarter after that until we get a different Government.

“Every single aspect of council services have been stretched to the limit, are stretched to the limit. There’s not a single bit of activity that the council does that isn’t impacted by those pressures "

Council's response

Responding to the claims of unconscious bias, Tanya Wilcock, St Helens Borough Council's director of communities, said: "Our strategy is based on the council's localities model which tackle inequalities by focusing resources on areas of greatest need and empowering and enabling communities to design and deliver services where there is capacity and community support to do so.  

“Where there is more than one library building in a locality, the library in the area of greatest need - which has been determined by a range of factors including population and deprivation - will continue to operate. 

“It's not an easy decision to make but by reducing the number of libraries and making a better offer, particularly through outreach work to target those with the most to gain who don't otherwise use the service, will mean that more people will benefit from our library services in the long run. 

“We have been in discussions for some time and are actively seeking to continue to find alternative provisions for those areas affected.

"We have support available to community groups interested with everything from grant funding support and more so please if you are interested in having services in your community do get in touch." 

Meanwhile, Councillor Baines added: “Cllr Mussell’s claims are totally disproved by the fact that we’re keeping council-run libraries operating in Haydock, Eccleston and Bold which are all represented by non-Labour councillors.

"What Cllr Mussell seems unwilling or unable to accept is the fact that with fewer resources we have to target our support to those communities who most need it – that’s the right and the moral thing to do.

"But every single resident will still be able to access an outstanding library service, including by visiting one of seven new and improved hubs, not least a fully repaired Gamble Building.

"In communities such as Rainford, if there’s a desire to keep a physical library then it’s our hope that community groups will work with us to take on ownership of the building, and we are ready and willing to work with Cllr Mussell and Rainford Parish Council for example, which charges a high precept specifically for use in the village, in order to make that happen.”