Council praised for “act of genuine repentance” ahead of long-awaited draft library strategy

The strategy of protecting Essex’s libraries will be revealed next month following a council U-turn in 2019 which saw 25 sites nearly close forever.

Essex County Council had planned to close 25 of its 74 libraries in 2018 before local outcry and a star-studded campaign from famous authors convinced the authority to change its mind.

The county council plans to publish its draft strategy on the future of libraries in Essex in October, and it has been praised for its “act of genuine repentance” three years after its heavily criticised closure proposal.

It announced in 2019 there would be no closures while initially adding volunteers would be sought to keep several smaller libraries running.

Commitment: Cllr Louise McKinlay

But deputy leader of authority councillor Louise McKinlay, who is in charge of library reorganisation, told the People and Families Policy and Scrutiny Committee yesterday (September 9) of the council’s commitment to keep libraries open and council staff in each.

Celebrities which joined residents in convincing the authority to halt any closures of the county’s libraries in 2019 include children’s authors such as TV personality David Walliams and comedian David Baddiel.

An open door question and answer session hosted by Cllr McKinlay is being held on September 20 ahead of the full draft strategy being published in October.

A period of consultation and engagement will follow to shape the council’s final strategy.

She said: “The libraries will be remain open and they will be run by county council staff.

“I absolutely agreed there is a role volunteers can play but I want that to be in addition to the library service has on offer.

“Through the course of the engagement sessions and consultation that is really important that we hear from people who are not using the libraries at the moment to understand why that is and what they want.

“The reality is use of libraries has been falling for a number of years and if we are to turn that tide by default we need to get people into the libraries and get them using them.

“And that is why through the work the communities can do and through the consultation we have really opportunity across the piece in terms of our communities and residents about how they want to see libraries and what it is they want from them.”

The county council said its ambition for the library service is to focus on three key areas:

  • Service delivery based on recovery, growing footfall into the service, both online and a new digital offer,
  • Improvements to Library Infrastructure with technology enabled to support communities access services and stay connected and supporting communities and families especially equality of opportunity and,
  • The Levelling Up agenda including preparing children to start school through initiatives such as Bookstart, Baby and and Toddler Rhymetime sessions, free access to Wi-Fi and public network.

Cllr McKinlay added: “It is not a case of everything has changed. There was lot of ground work which put us in a position where we can go forwards.

“It is fair to say there is a different approach that we can expect with a new administration in terms of the council, particularly in terms of levelling up and climate change.”

Councillor Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea) said: “I am no theologian but one thing I do know is the good Lord loves an act of genuine repentance and I think the change in attitude towards libraries by this council over the last couple of years is extremely welcome.

“And I also would like to thank the efforts of residents for concentrating the minds of this council on the absolute importance of libraries and I think I have alluded to it before in my personal case how important libraries were in my youth.

“But I think the recent events of the pandemic as in so many cases has emphasised yet again just how vital libraries are.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter