THE threat to Swindon’s libraries was a hot topic at last night’s heated council meeting.

Budget savings could mean the closure of Old Town library, as well as cuts in funding to the Walcot, Gorse Hill and Even Swindon facilities.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems put forward proposals that they claim would spare the libraries by finding savings elsewhere.

Coun Nick Martin, the cabinet member in charge of libraries, has praised the route taken by Walcot library, where a local community centre has volunteered to staff the facility.

The same scheme could be used in Gorse Hill or Even Swindon, although the Conservative administration is also keen to extend mobile library services.

Labour councillors have drawn up a petition to save Gorse Hill and Even Swindon libraries.

Coun Martin said: “I was almost tempted to sign your petition, I really was, because there was so much in there I agreed with.

“But we have to look very carefully at staffing. Four of our libraries deliver 70 per cent of our book lending and provide a very good service.

“Even Swindon library represents not seven per cent, but 0.7 per cent of the total. The amount of books is very small and the room itself is particularly small.

“Gorse Hill library represents just 0.6 per cent of the book lending.”

But opposition councillors were up in arms at the proposals.

Coun Des Moffatt said: “This is rather important to us, you know. We are not just yapping. It is important to us to make members of the administration understand that in taking the libraries away they are not just taking them away, they are undermining the community in a very real sense.”

Coun Maurice Fanning said: “It’s not just about books, it’s not just about library space – it’s about a community that works.”

Coun Bob Wright stressed how important libraries had been in his life.

He said: “When I was around 28 years old I read my first book. I did that out of curiosity because my father died at the rather young age of 46. I read out of curiousity, to understand life and death. The only way at that time I could afford to further my appetite for learning was the good services of my local library.

Lib Dem leader Stan Pajak spoke up for the libraries, and particularly praised the campaigning on behalf of Old Town Library.

He said: “I remember we have had this debate before. The debate then centred around the administration saying look at its usage figures. The public responded to that. It is still well-used despite the problems with the weather. When you go in there you have a completely different feeling. It’s a community point. It is going to save just £22,000 – hardly anything. It is clear from the petition that the people of Old Town want to keep the library.”

Deputy leader Coun Fionuala Foley said: “A year ago we found one-off finance to save Old Town library. That was a mistake because it was not sustainable.

“We didn’t know the economy was going to go into freefall. We cannot find that saving this year, we just can’t.”

But when it came to the crunch last night the majority of councillors decided the plans for Even Swindon and Walcot just weren’t sustainable with 35 voting against the amendment and just 18 in support of it with two abstentions.

The nails were also slammed into the financial coffin of Old Town and Walcot community libraries with 36 voting against Labours amendments and 18 for. Coun David Glaholm abstained.

The council argued that Even Swindon Library accounts for only 0.7 per cent of book lending in the borough while Gorse Hill accounts for just 0.6 per cent.

One suprise supporter of Labour’s offering was Justin Tomlinson (Con, Abbey Meads).

Coun Tomlinson, former lead member for leisure, recreation and culture was hailed for spearheading the launch of Swindon’s new Central Library last year. He was politically torn by last night’s decision but voted in favour of Labour’s amendments for the sake of the Even Swindon and Gorse Hill libraries. He later voted against the changes to keep Walcot and Old Town’s current levels of service.