CULTURE Ministers have rejected claims that Government austerity cuts are to blame for library closures – and said the service is more popular than Premier League football.
The defence comes after The Yorkshire Post revealed that this region’s councils have cut spending by more than a fifth in the past five years – with 50 branches shut down or taken over by community groups.
It prompted the cross-bench peer and social entrepreneur John Bird, who founded The Big Issue magazine 25 years ago, to use a House of Lords debate to warn of social “problems” if this decline is not halted.
“If you start cutting the number of libraries — we have lost more than 500 since 2010 – you are building up a bill that will occur in another part of government,” warned Lord Bird. “It will be shifted into disorder, crime, problems for schools and the fact that children will not be able to get a job because they will not have the skills and abilities.”
However his assertion was rejected by Tory peer Edward Ashton, a junior minister at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, who said libraries were flourishing and councils should protect this service.
“The most recent public data indicate that local authorities fund more than 3,000 public libraries in England and invested £714m,” he said.
“There were 225 million physical visits to public libraries in England over the same period. To put that in perspective, that is more visits than to Premier League football matches, the cinema and the top 10 UK tourist attractions combined.
“Let me be clear: the Government are determined to support libraries, even though they are a devolved matter for local authorities. We invested £2.6m in 2015-16 to install and upgrade wi-fi in more than 1,000 libraries in England.
“This means that wi-fi is now available in over 99 per cent of public libraries in England, in both urban and rural areas. Furthermore, the Government are working with authors, publishers and other interested groups to support the provision of e-books.
“We recognise that local authorities face challenges in evolving library services to meet changing public needs within funding constraints. In practical terms, we have provided them with a four-year flat cash settlement of £44.5bn from 2015 to 2019.
“This provides four years of certainty and they have £200bn to spend on local services. We will encourage local authorities to consider a full range of alternatives before making significant changes to their library services. This may include volunteers.”
The Minister also denied Lord Bird’s claim that business rates levied against high street bookshops put them at an unfair disadvantage against online distributors, like Amazon, whose out-of-town warehouses are subjected to lower land taxes.
“The Government announced in this year’s Budget the biggest ever cut in business rates, worth £6.7bn and benefiting 900,000 properties, including bookshops,” he added. “The Government recognise that the way people read has changed and that this inevitably will change the way they use libraries and buy books, but that does not mean that the library, the independent bookshop or physical books have become obsolete.
“It means that libraries and bookshops have to evolve. We will do all we can to encourage and enable reading and to ensure that everyone has access to books, for their value is impossible to overstate.”