Essex Council leader blocks campaigners on Twitter amid ongoing libraries row

THE leader of Essex Council has defended his decision to block a campaign group on Twitter.

Tory councillor David Finch blocked SOLE (Save Our Libraries Essex), which is campaigning against planned changes to the library system across the county.

Campaigners have accused him of trying to reduce the county’s library service to a ‘charity shop’ model, and said his decision to block them online demonstrated ‘contempt’ for the public.

But Cllr Finch accused the group of making ‘inaccurate and misleading statements’ and said he would not engage with them on the platform ‘until they adopt a more reasonable, sensible dialogue’.

SOLE was formed last year when Essex Council announced a consultation over plans to close up to 44 libraries across the county, to save around £2million. They included Vange, Fryerns, Great Tarpots, Hadleigh, Hullbridge, South Benfleet and Stock.

The proposal sparked fury, with more than 20,000 residents responding to a consultation and around 60,000 residents signing petitions.

Even other Tory councils, such as Basildon, spoke out against the plan and accused County Hall of unfairly targeting impoverished communities.

In summer, Essex Council announced that no libraries would close in the next five years – but campaigners at SOLE have claimed the council is still pushing ahead with plans that will ‘close libraries by stealth’.

In July, the council said that whilst no libraries would close, the library service would be ‘transformed’ and volunteers would be asked to run some smaller libraries, instead of paid, trained staff.

It said its ‘preference’ was for volunteer-run libraries to move to ‘community premises’ and said it would provide £18,000 funding per community library, to be doled out across three years. Each would also get a ‘one-off donation’ of books, plus a ‘quarterly loan’ of books.

Campaign group SOLE (Save Our Libraries Essex) has since called on community groups behind any expressions of interest to withdraw them, saying it is not sustainable for volunteers to run proper library services and they will instead be aiding and abetting the decimation of the Essex library service.

They accused the council of ‘putting a gun to people’s heads and demanding they run their local library, or their local library would close’.

Amid the initial consultation, the council received 80 expressions of interest in taking over the libraries, but several have since withdrawn their offers as part of the SOLE campaign.

SOLE said in autumn: “Our libraries remain under threat. Proposals to sell off library buildings, sack library staff and have volunteers house and fully run libraries is a closure plan by stealth.

“We now know that Essex County Council wants its libraries to be run by volunteers in community buildings. They have asked for groups to put in expressions of interest in running the libraries and have promised the miserly sum of £18,000, over three years, to resource them.

“So dedicated library buildings will go, as will the store of books, computers, resources and trained staff.”

SOLE revealed last week that Cllr Finch had blocked its account on Twitter.

In a statement, it said: “We have been critical in our tweets – all of which are a matter of public record – but certainly never rude to Cllr Finch.

“It seems Cllr Finch just wants to put his fingers in his ears and not listen to the people of Essex, who overwhelmingly oppose his council’s desire to wash its hands of much of the library service and have community groups running charity shop libraries, without paid staff, instead. It is a closure plan by stealth.

“To block a diverse community campaign that is made up of people who vote for all parties and none – including those who will vote for him – shows an astonishing contempt for the people of Essex.

“In a democracy, it is surely the duty of a leader to at least listen? If he doesn’t want to listen to those he supposedly represents, is he really fit for the job?”

In a statement to the YA, Cllr Finch responded: “The content of SOLE’s comments about Essex libraries on Twitter, which were directed at me, left a lot to be desired.

Cllr David Finch

“They seem intent on perpetuating the myth that Essex libraries are under threat of closure by stealth, which is completely untrue.

“Given SOLE’s inaccurate and misleading statements, I decided it was best not to engage with them on Twitter until they adopt a more reasonable, sensible dialogue.

“This doesn’t in any way impact SOLE’s ability to contact the council, or me personally, via email or any other, more official route.”

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Charles Thomson

Chief ReporterEmail: [email protected]