COUNCILLORS acknowledged the closure of six of the borough's libraries will have “a negative impact” but said the local authority will maintain a service “at the heart of communities”.

Closure of six libraries agreed

The Labour cabinet agreed on Wednesday afternoon at St Helens town hall on recommendations to close Garswood, Rainhill, Rainford and Parr libraries at the end of January 2024. 

Peter Street and Billinge libraries will not be reopened after having been closed due to expiry of a building lease and structural issues, respectively.

Cllr Anthony Burns, cabinet member for wellbeing, culture and heritage, told  the town hall meeting “no cabinet members around this table want to close a library in the borough” but cited the “disastrous effect” of continuing budget cuts and that the authority had to “balance the books”.

He insisted the library service would “maintain a geographical spread of libraries” in the borough and that the council’s strategy will “create a modern library service” that is “at the heart of communities”.

There has been considerable anger in some communities affected by the decision, which has been made despite a majority of respondents in a public consultation opposing plans to axe library buildings.

READ > Doctor pocketed £10,000 after lying to bosses about being off sick

The meeting heard that the council is looking at a “community-managed approach" for libraries that will close, and is in talks with groups about this, though those buildings would no longer be under the local authority’s control.

St Helens Library, based in the World of Glass Museum, with a view for it be relocated back at the Gamble Building in future, will remain open, along with Newton-le-Willows, Chester Lane, Haydock, Eccleston, Moss Bank and Thatto Heath.

This will leave the borough with seven operational libraries.   

What councillors said

St Helens Star: Cllr Anthony Burns, cabinet member for wellbeing, culture and heritageCllr Anthony Burns, cabinet member for wellbeing, culture and heritage (Image: St Helens Council)

Cllr Burns said: “It’s no secret that continuing budget cuts are having a disastrous effect on towns such as ours”, adding “we’ve had no option but to review every single council service since, the library service is no different”.

Cllr Burns said the “mission” of the libraries strategy is still “to create a modern library service” that is “at the heart of communities.”

He added: “The draft strategy proposes reducing the number of library buildings in the borough focusing on those best to serve those communities with the greatest need while also maintaining a geographical spread of libraries”.

Cllr Burns said that it has been identified that there will be “a negative impact when libraries close on people who share the following protective characteristics, sex, age and disability and these impacts do include difficulty travelling to other libraries, potential loss of social interaction and impact on mental health and wellbeing, reduced access also to free Wi-Fi.   

“To address this and to attempt to minimise the impact of libraries closing a number of specific mitigations have been identified, to be signposted to alternative library provisions in the borough, providing travel information to other libraries, promotion of online e-services and provide access to home delivery library service where appropriate and necessary.”

He added: “We are in a difficult position as an authority due to continuing budget cuts by this Tory government and although we are working ambitiously to increase the revenue we can bring into the council through regeneration in the future we need to make sure we operate within our means now.

“This strategy will deliver a modern library service and will increase participation in the service through its buildings and its digital and outreach services. “

During the meeting, cabinet member Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron referred to responses in the consultation, “a sort of criticism that we’re only investing in a library in St Helens town centre”, and while he said he didn’t agree with this, asked about the plan for the wider borough.

St Helens Star: Rainhill LibraryRainhill Library (Image: Google Street View)

In response, Cllr Burns said “we will keep the building access within seven libraries across the borough. We will have the two main ones in St Helens town centre and the other one in Newton, but will be complemented by five branches across the borough.

“We’ve also secured funds to refurbish the one in Haydock into a SEND-friendly library. The strategy does seem to create a geographical spread as the best we can do but also implement that library outreach to increase participation and that’s a key thing”.

'We recognise this will have a negative impact'

Cllr Andy Bowden noted that four out of five people in the consultation did not agree with the proposal to close libraries and asked: “How do you respond to those saying that perhaps we haven’t listened?”

Cllr Burns said: “I think we need to be absolutely clear that no cabinet members around this table want to close a library in the borough.

“We face the same decisions week in week out in our budget, we are now facing the same ones that businesses and families across the country are facing. It’s not just the budget crisis but the cost of living crisis as well.

“We do recognise that this will have a negative impact, there’s no doubt about that.”  

St Helens Star: Garswood Library will close Garswood Library will close (Image: Stock)

Council in talks over 'community management' of axed libraries 

Meanwhile, cabinet member Cllr Richard McCauley asked about what interest there has been in communities managing buildings that are proposed to be declared surplus.

Cllr Burns said: “I’m pleased to say that during the consultation we were approached by three charitable organisations with a view to exploring opportunities that might exist there to operate a community-managed model within some of them buildings.

“There are clearly a number of other groups who’ve asked questions, we’re hoping once this process has concluded that they will come forward now.”

'Budget cuts haunt our decision-making'

St Helens Star: Cllr David Baines, leader of St Helens CouncilCllr David Baines, leader of St Helens Council (Image: St Helens Council)

Before the strategy went to a vote, council leader David Baines, chairing the meeting, said: “Budget cuts, they are the context that haunts all our decision making, and every local government body in England and the wider UK.

“Like we have for 13 years we’ll do the best we can to protect the most vulnerable and as many frontline services as possible.

"It is our sincere hope that where no physical council library building remains that the community will be able to take on responsibility if there’s demand for it and we will of course support the community in any way we can.”

Cabinet members agreed to the proposals.

The cabinet committee is made up of members of the ruling Labour party.

No opposition members sit in cabinet, therefore, there is not the opportunity to hear the views from councillors of different parties.