GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS are investigating Sheffield Council’s controversial decision to axe funding for 15 libraries following complaints the move is “unlawful”.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport said a decision over whether it will launch an inquiry into claims the council, which is set to hand over venues to volunteer groups in three weeks’ time, is failing in its duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service for the whole of the city.
It comes after Broomhill Library Action Group, one of the community organisations which submitted a takeover bid when their local library was threatened with closure, complained to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey over the apparent breach of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.
The group pointed to flaws in the needs assessment carried which decided which of the 27 libraries in the city would be included in the hit-list.
A spokesman for BLAG said: “The needs assessment has been found to be flawed, on a large number of points, by an independent statistician.
“Because of this, we believe that the rankings of libraries are not a true reflection of their use. “In particular, BLAG has never found a satisfactory reason why Broomhill Library, which is the third-busiest in the city for book issues, has been selected for closure.
“It has been a long hard struggle to get the minister to take our concerns seriously and look into them, and it is a great pity that this action has come at such a late stage. We recognise that this has caused considerable problems for the council and that the council needs to save money. However we firmly believe that the benefit of libraries in the community is so great that they save money not cost it.”
At a meeting of the local authority this week councillors said they were aware of the Government’s evidence-gathering exercise, but intended to press ahead with plans for the community takeovers of libraries and axing 75 members of staff.
Coun Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for communities, said delaying the handover would “risk the hard work of volunteers”.
A spokesman for the DCMS told the Yorkshire Post: “Our present position is that there is insufficient information to enable the Secretary of State to decide whether a local inquiry is necessary to resolve any real doubt or uncertainty about whether the council is complying with its statutory duty.
“Additional specific information has been requested for further consideration and determination as to whether an inquiry should be ordered.
“This is a long process that involves considering a great deal of complex material. There is no deadline to decide whether an Inquiry should take place but we aim to make a decision by October 31.”
Under the plans, the council has agreed to contribute £262,000 towards maintenance and upkeep costs to be split between 10 venues over the next three years.
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, MP for Sheffield Hallam, has previously accused the Labour-run council of politically-motivated tactics. Of the 11 hub libraries which will remain publicly-funded and staffed, just one is in his constituency.