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Community run libraries to be tested in Suffolk
Gainsborough Library, Ipswich
Gainsborough Library and others could soon be run by the community

Communities in Suffolk are being given the chance to run their local library as part of a pilot scheme.

The county-wide network of book loaning would remain, but groups could set local opening hours and choose events.

Suffolk County Council says grants would be provided to the groups, who would then employ the library staff.

"We want to make sure that the services are as efficient as possible and as close to the community as possible," said Guenever Pachent.

The scheme is one of 10 projects in the country for the Government's Future Libraries Programme.

Guenever Pachent, Suffolk County Council's Service Director for Culture Information Inclusion and Learning, says the scheme is already underway and that four groups have expressed an interest in being involved.

"We would be interested in any organisation that might want to run (a library)," she said. "There would be a minimum service that they would need to provide in exchange for a grant.

At the moment we know we've got dedicated, discreet, efficient library staff and we value that service
Steve Warner, UNISON

"They would need to be part of the network, so that they would circulate their books around Suffolk.

"The local parish council or other social enterprise running it would be able to make other changes themselves, so if there was room in the library they might bring in other activities.

"I think we'd set minimum opening hours, but I think people might extend opening hours."

Being a pilot scheme, Guenever says some of the finer details are unknown and that everything they learn will be fed back to the government to see if it is a viable project to be rolled out elsewhere.

Addressing cuts to services, Guenever told BBC Suffolk's Mark Murphy Breakfast Show that frontline services would be safe.

"Our libraries are much loved, well used and good value for money, but times are hard and we know that savings are likely to be on the cards," she said.

"So we've been thinking about taking money out of the management structure and the bureaucracy and enabling and inviting local people to run their libraries instead."

Libraries facing closure?

Suffolk has 44 libraries and a mobile service. Would some of the smaller libraries be at risk of closure if a community group didn't come forward to take over the running?

"No, I don't think so," said Guenever. "At this stage we don't know what would happen but I think it's quite unlikely."

Rob Dunger, Emily Anderson and Mark Murphy in the library
The Breakfast Show take a look around Gainsborough Library

Could two or more libraries merge?

"That might be the ultimate conclusion, but we're starting with the view that we want to protect the network of libraries, the number of libraries and the opening hours, rather than the talk of closure which you hear in other counties."

As for the current library staff, it is likely that they would no longer be employed by Suffolk County Council but by the social enterprise, parish council or other group who takes over the daily running.

A consultation process is underway.

"We are speaking to our staff, we have an online question and answer blog that is being responded to at the moment. We'll be speaking to managers direct in early September.

"It's very important that we keep them on board and that the local manager works with their community to talk about options."

Union fears job cuts

Steve Warner, from public sector union UNISON, fears that libraries will be closed if community groups aren't forthcoming.

"I've seen the announcement that because voluntary groups are taking over the running of the libraries, doesn't mean that if they don't step forward libraries won't automatically close," he said.

"Automatically is your get out clause there - and it makes me fear for the future of the library service.

"At the moment we know we've got dedicated, discreet, efficient library staff and we value that service."

Although Steve welcomes the news that frontline staff were unlikely to lose their jobs, he expressed his concern that they would lose the benefits of being a council employee.

He also warned that managers should not become scapegoats.

"A bureaucracy is only a bureaucracy when it stops you doing exactly what you want. When it helps you do something good it's efficient administration.

"I don't see many over-staffed parts of Suffolk County Council these days."


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