Two lost and the futures of a few hanging in the balance

In Libraries Week we report on the important libraries in Northamptonshire which may never open to the public again

By Sarah Ward

St James library and Kingsthorpe library in Northampton have been closed for more than a year.

Two of the 17 libraries dropped by Northamptonshire county council and marked for a community takeover, there’s a possibility these libraries may never re-open.

They may follow the fate of those in Far Cotton and Higham Ferrers and close permanently, the books packed away and sent into storage or transferred to the stock collection of another library.

The closure of these libraries mean that Northampton residents and families living in these areas now have to travel miles to the town’s central library to browse the shelves and check out books or use information facilities.

Chair of the St James’ residents association Graham Croucher, who has been fighting to keep the library in his area open and in use, said the closure of the community venue is being felt.

“It has affected the community. There was a regular coffee morning that was popular and craft events.

“It was there for any given person at any given time and people used it.”

The reduction of library services in the county was a financial decision made by the under pressure county council back in 2017. After a judge ruled in August 2018 that their first plan to close more than half of its 36 libraries was unlawful - the Conservative administration then decided to revise the idea and instead chose to hand over almost half of its libraries to communities and volunteers to run.

19 libraries would remain under statutory provision and be run by the council -  five of these would be run by the community and keep statutory protection meaning that the library would be safe and go back into council control if the volunteer group failed.

17 libraries were to be run by community groups (with no statutory safety net) with the handover planned for last year. The pandemic threw a spanner in the works - with all libraries closing their doors for many months - and so final negotiations are still happening with a handful of libraries, but things are still uncertain for the Northampton libraries at Kingsthorpe and St James. Irchester library is also closed and decisions about its future have not been made.

At Kingsthorpe, Northgate Schools Arts College has put in an accepted business plan to run the library and had the volunteers lined up to help. But the stumbling block is the £15,300 the council wants in rent from the school. It will then also have to find the costs to employ a librarian. *The new Kingsthorpe parish council has pledged around £14,000 to help with costs and it is currently lobbying the west unitary over leasing costs.

Long-standing Liberal Democrat councillor for the area Cllr Sally Beardsworth says requests to current leader of West Northamptonshire Council Cllr Jonathan Nunn to reduce the rental expectation have not been granted.

“It is doomed to failure. Northgate is expected to pay a full time librarian plus pay the rent. How do you make money on a library? The county council found they could not do it, even paying a peppercorn rent and now they are expecting someone else to do it with a much higher rent.”

In St James the situation is at stalemate. Community interest organisation NN5 CIC run by Tony Knaggs beat off the bid from the residents association to run the library as a community venture. However negotiations are still ongoing with West Northamptonshire Council (the county council’s successor).

When NN Journal spoke to Mr Knaggs yesterday he said he could give no date for when the library would open. He said his organisation was in talks with the local authority about a community asset transfer - where the building is handed over to the organisation.

Correspondence seen by NN Journal from the officer in charge of the library handover Anne Lovely has said if the NN5 plan does not happen the library would close and then any alternatives would need to go back to the new unitary council for approval.

There has also been concern over the future of Raunds library. The hours it is open have been significantly reduced and talks between the Raunds Community Library Trust (who now run the service) and the town council came to a standstill during the pandemic. 

After concerns from constituents, MP for Corby and East Northants Tom Pursglove recently posted a video about the issue. In it he said he was trying to get to the bottom of the problems and was talking to both Raunds Town Council and North Northants Council about it.

The theme for this year’s annual Libraries Week is the’ central role that libraries play in their community as a driver for inclusion, sustainability, social mobility and community cohesion’.

Chair of community benefit society 21 Libraries Group Network Alison Richards said the pandemic has meant that children have had their education interrupted and so the libraries and the range of books available there are needed now more than ever. She said:

“Far Cotton is a deprived area and has lost its library. St James is deprived and Kingsthorpe has large areas of deprivation and serves a very big area.”

She said the former county council, and now its replacement unitary councils are not acting as other local authorities have done when they decided to downgrade their libraries network.

“A very important point is that this is not at all typical of community managed libraries in other parts of the country.

“My understanding is a lot of the local authorities continue to maintain the building and take on the running costs. They say these libraries are community managed because they do not have any staff - they rely on volunteers to run. But here the expectation is that the volunteers take on the costs.”

It was the cost of running the building which proved the death knell for the Higham Ferrers library. The volunteers said they could not take on the financial pressure of running the building.

Alison Richards said:

“It is a very serious loss for these communities. When you look at how Rushden and Higham Ferrers are expanding, there is a need for a library.”

Library cuts have been taking place across the country during the Conservative’s austerity years. The Guardian reported in December that in the year to March 20 public funding for libraries in the UK fell by £25m to £725m, as local authorities decided to withdraw the library funds to pay for other expensive services such as adult social care.

*Information added at 12.45pm on October 6

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