Masthead Local Govt - Litigation

Northamptonshire faces multiple legal challenges over library closure plans

Northamptonshire County Council is facing a series of legal challenges over its decision in February to earmark 21 libraries for closure.

Irwin Mitchell said it had been instructed by the family of a young girl to issue an application for judicial review over the decision taken in February, while another law firm, Watkins & Gunn, is acting on behalf of 20 of the libraries. The BBC has reported that another library in Desborough has brought a separate challenge.

Culture Secretary Matt Hancock had previously launched an investigation into whether the county council is failing to carry out its duty to provide an adequate library service. This followed a complaint from Cilip, a professional body for librarians.

The threatened legal proceedings come at a difficult time for the county council, with Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid saying last month he was minded to send commissioners into the local authority. This followed a damning report by inspectors led by Max Caller which concluded that the council had failed to meet its best value duty.

Irwin Mitchell said its clients made extensive use of one of the 21 libraries set to close, attending playgroups and children’s centre activities.

Caroline Barrett from the law firm, who is representing the family, said: “Many people using the library services are children, or are elderly, disabled, or from low income households and they may struggle to access the library provision in larger towns.

“These cuts are extensive and our client is concerned that this will have a very significant impact upon their ability to access a library service and the impact on local residents, many of whom live in rural areas. Our clients believe that, if implemented, these cuts will have a huge detrimental impact on the local community in Northamptonshire.”

Barrett added: “We have lodged an application with the High Court for a judicial review and an urgent hearing. Our client considers that the council failed to carry out a lawful public consultation into the proposals and has not conducted a full and lawful assessment of how vulnerable people will be affected.

“Further, the council has not considered how to promote and safeguard the welfare of local children, has not taken into account various factors that should have impacted upon its decision, and has failed to comply with its duty to ensure there is a comprehensive library service in the county. All councils must comply with this duty, and our client considers that a closure of over half the county’s libraries will not result in a comprehensive library service.”

According to the BBC, Michael Imperato of Watkins & Gunn, questioned how "vulnerable people, whether elderly, children or disabled, would access libraries" if the cuts went ahead.

He said any judicial review could take place "in a matter of weeks or a month or two".

A Northamptonshire County Council spokesman said: “Our review of the library service in Northamptonshire was a necessary element of our budget-setting process for 2018/19 given the severe financial pressures the authority is facing, and is a service many other local authorities across the country have already reviewed.

“When we launched our library service review last October, we presented three options we believe each presented a comprehensive and efficient library service. These options carefully took account of value for money, geographical coverage, areas of need, usage and trends, accessibility, income generation, use of space and suitability of library premises for future development.

“As part of the decision-making process, we held a full and open 12-week consultation, during which we received feedback from more than 5,000 people, and we published Equality Impact Assessments for each individual library to consider the impact of the proposed changes.

“We will be defending the legal challenges lodged.”

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