A high-court challenge has been launched by Birmingham-based human-rights law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) against Gloucestershire and Somerset councils, both of which are planning major library cutbacks. Acting on behalf of local library users, PIL has written to the councils to give notice that an application for judicial review will be lodged within weeks.
The firm is disputing the legality of the councils' plans, given the statutory obligation under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act for local authorities to provide a "comprehensive and efficient library service for everyone wanting to use it". PIL – which is also representing the two teenagers seeking a judicial review into university tuition fee rises – argues that the two councils also failed carry out a proper consultation with local people prior to making their cutback decisions.
PIL lawyer Phil Shiner said local government bodies could not "pin their hopes on vague notions of the big society when they are required by parliament to maintain a comprehensive and efficient library service for everyone in the county", adding that this definition meant "everyone, including single mothers, the disabled, the elderly and those living in rural areas". A colleague, Leigh Webber, said the consultations had been rushed through to enable councils to approve their budgets, meaning Gloucestershire and Somerset county councils had been unable to assess the needs of local people adequately, or to carry out proper consultation.
Gloucestershire is proposing to reduce the number of local libraries with full opening hours from 38 to just 9, and to cut the mobile library service for people in rural areas completely. Campaigners, who have enlisted a roster of high-profile authors including Joanna Trollope and Yann Martel in support of their cause, greeted last week's decision by the council to push through proposed cuts with fury, saying it had "condemned our public library service to heavy-handed, disproportionate and permanently damaging cuts, the impact of which will resonate on our communities for decades to come".
Somerset council has modified its original proposal – to cut 20 of 34 libraries and reduce mobile libraries from 6 services to 2 – but even with reductions the cutbacks will still affect a third of the county's library services.
A statement from PIL said: "The scale of the cuts in both counties is excessive and more than twice the percentage reduction in central government funding." The firm added that the public's opposition had been made clear when it was consulted on the changes, while many in affected communities had not been consulted at all.
The legal challenge will have widespread implications for library closures across the country. The number of libraries threatened across the UK is steadily creeping upwards, with over 520 – including 60 mobile libraries – now earmarked for the axe, according to Public Libraries News.
Yet the political cost of potentially unpopular closures already appears to be influencing some councils, with a number of them – including Oxfordshire, where Cameron and Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, both have their constituencies – choosing to modify or delay their closure decisions in the face of popular opposition.
The prime minister has also been accused by the Labour culture spokesman Ivan Lewis of intervening in Oxfordshire's decision. Lewis told the Independent on Sunday: "Local library campaigners across the country will be enraged by David Cameron's arrogance and hypocrisy, lecturing us all about the necessity of these cuts while intervening to save himself from embarassment in his own backyard."
However, spokespeople for the prime minister and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it was a local matter and that they were unaware of any representations by the prime minister.
The Guardian, Benedicte Page, 24 February 2010