THE Government has launched an investigation into Swindon Borough Council’s library cuts.
In a letter published yesterday by Rob Wilson, Minister for Civil Society, it was confirmed that following four complaints made about the controversial decision to cut library provisions across the town, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is to look at whether the council has failed in their duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for residents.
If the Secretary of State deems that there has been a failure, the decision could be at the centre of a local inquiry into the matter.
In the letter to council leader David Renard, Mr Wilson said: “When we met I indicated that the Department was of the view that the representations should be treated as a formal complaint. Following consideration of their advice, I can now confirm that the Department is treating the representations as a formal complaint under Section 10 (1) (a) of the Act that Swindon Borough Council is failing to carry out its duties relating to the public library service imposed on it by or under the Act.
“In order to consider the complaint fully and to decide if a local inquiry is needed to resolve any serious doubt or uncertainty as to whether the Council is complying with its statutory duties under the Act, we firstly need to collate all the relevant information regarding the proposed changes to the library service.
"Although my officials have held a number of discussions with your officers regarding the council’s library proposals, they will now discuss with your officers the specific detail that is required to assist our consideration of the complaint.”
The controversial decision follows a year of debate around how Swindon’s library service would be run in the future with the council withdrawing funding from all but the core five libraries from August.
But many changes were rolled out across the town last Wednesday where libraries in Covingham, Liden, Moredon, Old Town, Penhill, Pinehurst, Upper Stratton and Wroughton will only be open for just 15 hours per week.
Even Swindon Library is already open for just 10 hours a week and that will remain unchanged.
It is understood that community groups and parish councils who have submitted a bid to take over the running of their library from August will find out the outcome by the end of the month.
It is hoped that cuts and the withdrawal of support to some services will deliver the council savings in its total budget over the next four years, including the reduction in the library budget of £1.5m by 2020.
In response to the letter by Mr Wilson, Coun Renard said: “We understand that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) needs to look into the issues raised in the representations they have received, and we will co-operate fully with their enquiries.
“The issues raised with DCMS were fully considered through the consultation that supported the development of the Council’s Libraries Strategy and we will continue to implement the strategy in accordance with the timescales approved by Cabinet.”
Campaign group Save Swindon Libraries has welcomed the letter.
Sarah Church from the group said: “This letter from the minister is welcome, although it has taken some time to arrive.
"It is very welcome, and indeed urgent, that an inquiry will be held as to whether 5 libraries on reduced services can constitute a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ for this expanding town.
“The minister leaves it to the leader of Swindon Borough Council to decide whether to carry on with the proposed changes, some of which have already happened in the form of reduced staffed hours across all the libraries, while campaigners and library users would strongly urge the council to halt the changes until the inquiry is complete.
"To blithely carry on regardless is a reckless potential waste of public money: to bring back reduced or terminated services may cost a lot more than continuing to fund our much-beloved library service.”
The DCMS will now gather information from the council to inform its recommendation.