By Local Democracy Reporter Simon Finlay
Library buildings in Kent could be sold off to save money, county council bosses have announced.
Cash-strapped Kent County Council’s deputy leader Peter Oakford said the disposals could come in the 2025-26 budget.
Cllr Oakford claimed Kent has “far too many libraries” compared to neighbouring authorities.
The authority, which is in charge of 99 libraries, must find tens of millions of pounds worth of savings in the face of squeezed government funding and rising costs.
According to one well-placed source, one-third of the libraries in Kent could be affected but the overall anticipated saving is not yet known.
Conservative-run KCC recently shelved the proposed closure of four of the county’s rubbish tips after a massive public outcry.
Liberal Democrat opposition group leader, Cllr Antony Hook, claimed residents’ reaction to the loss of libraries is likely to be akin to “the tips on stilts”.
He said libraries are “essential” community resources used by residents of all ages, as well as valued meeting places for local groups.
‘Sold or disposed of’
Cllr Oakford told the policy and resources cabinet committee on Wednesday (January 17) libraries could be “sold or disposed of” to local community organisations such as parish councils.
But he added that KCC will not be “gifting” library buildings, saying: “I think we’re all aware that Kent has far too many libraries. We have more libraries per head than any other organisation or local authority in the country. We currently have 99 libraries.
“The administration will bring a proposal forward sometime this year to see where libraries can be sold or disposed of to local communities such as parish councils, to other organisations if we were to deem that we would want to carry on running them as a library, and perhaps if a parish wanted to keep a library in their area.
“The thing that we will not be doing is gifting these buildings. When this has happened in the past, KCC has passed a building over to a local parish council as an example but has retained the liability for that building, so we’ve had to carry on paying the maintenance etc. This is something we can no longer afford to do.”
Thanet Labour county councillor Barry Lewis said: “We should be proud that we have more libraries than any other county in the country and should be increasing their use rather than talk about selling them or closing them.”
After the meeting, Cllr Hook said: “We are appalled at this Conservative plan to cut libraries. They appear to have learned nothing from their disastrous scheme to put household waste centres up for closure which was beaten back by public pressure.
“Libraries are essential – Kent’s libraries are used by thousands of people every week. Not only do they provide free access to books, newspapers, audio books and other resources they also provide free Internet and computer facilities for everyone.
“Many of the people who used libraries rely on it being relatively local to them and could not easily travel to another town’s libraries. Taking library services away will increase people’s cost of living further.
“Many of Kent’s libraries have other vital community uses. Some clubs and societies meet in them. In Faversham, our library has a changing spaces area which is vital for some disabled people to visit the town centre.
“Libraries also provide registration of births and deaths. Do we really want to make new parents or bereaved people travel further for registration services?”
‘Cannot be ruled out’
Cllr Harry Rayner, deputy cabinet member for finance, told members: “There is no policy for the disposal of any libraries, as things stand, but this cannot be ruled out, and there may be a reduction in the number of libraries.”
He said library buildings should not be given away but continued community use should be favoured.
Cllr Rayner said KCC will argue that libraries are “semi-discretionary” in terms of council spending but would have to work with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in ironing out the details.
Previous reduction in services
In 2019 library hours at sites across the county, including Thanet, were reduced to save KCC £960,000 over two years.
At that time KCC said in 2017-18 it spent £15,993,000 on running Libraries, Registration and Archives services. LRA services brought in an income of £6,300,000; the majority coming from registration services leaving a cost of £9,623,000. The vast majority of spend – £11,328,000- was on staffing.
Updated statement from KCC
County Council (KCC) Cabinet Member for Community & Regulatory Services, Clair Bell, said: “Despite the unprecedented and well-documented financial pressures the council is facing, there are no plans currently underway to close libraries across the county.
“We are continuing, as we have in the past, to monitor and review KCC library services to ensure they are sustainable in the future, looking at all the options. For example, the potential for sharing premises with other services, such as post offices or adult education, as happens now in some locations.
“Building condition, maintenance costs and usage are all factors to consider, as is the spread of libraries across the county. We will explore some initial work with parish councils who have expressed interest in running a library, and how they might be supported to do so.
“Any changes to the library service would involve full public consultation. However, at present there are no proposals to reduce the number of libraries available to Kent residents.”