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DERBYSHIRE: War of words over libraries

High Peak MP Ruth George
High Peak MP Ruth George

A Labour Derbyshire MP has been called “dishonest” by the county council’s Tory leader as a “war of words” broke out over libraries.

During a full council meeting on Wednesday (April 12), leader Cllr Barry Lewis, said that High Peak Labour MP Ruth George was “dishonest” and had been “scaremongering” over library changes.

Anne Western

Anne Western

Opposition leader Cllr Anne Western (Labour), said that this was a “regrettable attack” and asked for an apology.

Derbyshire County Council has launched a consultation on whether to approve plans to pass 20 out of 45 libraries over to volunteers, along with reviews of staffing and opening hours.

It aims to save £1.6 million through these proposals.

Mrs George has started a petition against the plans, which has gathered more than 400 signatures, and is available on the county council’s website.

Council leader Barry Lewis

Council leader Barry Lewis

She fears that if volunteers cannot be sourced to run these libraries, they will close.

Cllr Barry Lewis (Conservative) reiterated that there is no plan to close any libraries and that if volunteers cannot be found, then the council would retain the sites.

He commented, during what became a heated debate in which more than a dozen members voiced their opinions, that he did not want a “war of words”.

Cllr Lewis said: “There are a few assurances I would like to get across –  no Derbyshire library will close.

“One Derbyshire politician has failed to grasp that fact and has proceeded to scaremonger the public.

“I am more than happy to debate the issue at the next meeting.

“Ruth George can attend and speak at that meeting as a member of the public and I would welcome the chance to answer questions.

“But if you put out dishonest questions, you are going to get knocked down for it.”

Mrs George has called Cllr Lewis’ comments “childish” and said that he needs to show “more respect”.

In response, Cllr Western said: “It is very regrettable that the council has chosen to attack an MP in this chamber, and I feel an apology is in order.

“Before you go about and call people dishonest, you ought to look at yourself, talk about pot and kettle.

“I have a copy of the Conservative manifesto here and there’s nothing in there about this (the library consultation).”

In a statement, Mrs George said: “I would urge Cllr Lewis to consider his words more wisely.

“He may not like what I have said, but I have been completely open and honest about the future of Derbyshire’s libraries.

“The implication is clear: libraries will have to close if community groups aren’t prepared to take on the burden of admin and opening hours.

“There is nothing in the council paper about what will happen if the community model fails and this is what I have asked.

“If Cllr Lewis has an alternative plan, he needs to share it with Derbyshire residents, as part of the consultation.

“Simply insulting me and claiming I am dishonest for asking the questions that my constituents are asking me makes it seem that Cllr Lewis either can’t answer or won’t answer – how else he is proposing to keep libraries open?

“Childish insults don’t cut the mustard with me or with Derbyshire residents.

“It’s water off a duck’s back to me but Cllr Lewis needs to show residents and council staff more respect.”

The consultation will start on Monday, May 7 and run for 12 weeks.

Drop-in sessions will be announced over the next few weeks and questionnaires are available from the council website or in the county’s libraries.

The 20 libraries which could be passed over to volunteers, chosen because there are the least-used, are: Borrowash; Brimington; Clowne; Creswell; Duffield; Etwall; Gamesley; Hadfield; Hayfield; Holmewood; Killamarsh; Melbourne; Old Whittington; Pinxton; Somercotes; Tideswell; Whaley Bridge; Whitwell; Wingerworth; and Woodville.

During Wednesday’s meeting, with an agenda which made no mention of the libraries situation, the discussions quickly find a way to turn to what is the county council’s hot topic.

Much of this debate centered on which political party is to be praised for the new Glossop library in Talbot Street, set to open on Wednesday, April 25.

Cllr Lewis stated: “Labour have claimed a number of things in the last few weeks, and that Belper and Glossop libraries were their commitments.

“We put up £2 million to build a library in Glossop and the investment for this came about in our last administration.

“It is our investment.”

Labour members claimed that they had set aside money for this way back in 2008.

Tory cabinet member Cllr Angelique Foster claims that Labour concerns over the future of libraries were addressed in the consultation  plan.

She said: “The report on our consultation was very easy to read, possibly the most easy I have read, and English is not my first language.

“The Labour forward plan published last year set aside £320,000 for a further review of library staff and hours.”

In response, among the flurry of Labour members to speak during the impromptu library debate, Cllr Western said: “We did mention libraries in our five-year plan, it’s what you have to do when you have as little funding as this council, you are facing the same issues when you tried to set your budget in February.

“The council plan uses the words ambitious and aspirational which are things that every council should be.

“But we need to be realistic and both sides of the chamber can agree that to do any of this we need a fairer funding settlement from central government.

Meanwhile, Cllr Paul Smith (Labour) felt that a volunteer-run service was not the best option.

He said: “This council cannot keep revolving roles down to other people, members of the public, people are struggling with a work/life balance as it is, and struggling to feed families, to keep a roof over their heads.”

The next full council meeting is on Wednesday, June 6, which will feature a debate on the council’s proposals.

The proposal to pass 20 libraries to volunteers is the preferred option among three other choices – council officers feel that these remaining options should be rejected.

These choices are to retain all 45 libraries, outsource libraries to another organisation or local authority, or to close several libraries.

Labour’s Cllr David Allen commented: “I look forward to the debate, we do support libraries and always have supported libraries, and professionally-run ones, which is precisely not what you will have under these recent proposals.”

Labour, supported by the LibDems, have called in the ruling cabinet’s report on the library consultation to be examined by the scrutiny committee “to get some clarity on what the options actually are”.

Eddie Bisknell , Local Democracy Reporting Service