ONLY a Houdini could make the council library service profitable, councillors heard.

It came as new plans were unveiled to transfer responsibility for Swindon’s five main libraries to an independent charity.

The borough wants to set up a public sector mutual, a social enterprise set up by public authorities whose staff help set the organisation’s direction. On Wednesday night, cabinet members agreed to spend £100,000 to get the mutual running by 2020. It is part of a plan to bring down the library budget to £1.1 million.

A new commercial manager would be brought in to identify ways for the library to bring in more income.

But councillors heard that only a magician could make the library profitable.

Coun Keith Williams, cabinet member for corporate services, said: “There’s routes around using it for conferencing, as a meeting space, things like that, but I think realistically a library service is never going to be a profitable service. You’d be Houdini if you were able to do that.”

Borough commissioner Sally Burnett admitted there was a risk that the commissioning process were challenged and another organisation able to win the library service tender. However, she said parameters could be set by commissioners stipulating that only social enterprises were able to bid for the contract.

No further borough libraries are expected to shut as a result of the proposals, with Coun Williams saying there may even be an improvement in services on offer.

He added: “What we have here is a proposition. We’re not saying it’s definitely going to happen, but it’s something we should investigate in order to protect the library service in the future. There would be a large involvement from community groups, so the council could be a minority stakeholder in that.”

The Labour group criticised the plans. Leader Jim Grant said: “Swindon’s Tory administration have a terrible record with these types of public service mutuals.

In 2011 the administration transferred most of its health and adults services staff to a mutual, SEQOL, which ended up going bust and the council had to scurry to transfer the organisation’s staff back to the council.”

Coun Williams responded: “What we’re talking about here is an exercise to investigate and ensure we have everything in place. There have been situations in the past where sections of the council have been moved out. We have learned from those, which is why this is not something we’re rushing into, we’re looking to put more of the structure in to ensure we have everything in place before we make changes to see it is viable.”

The Advertiser understands that the transfer of library services to the mutual would not affect the libraries currently managed by parish councils.