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County council loses High Court battle over library provision changes

A High Court judge has quashed a county council’s planned changes to its library services provision.

Lincolnshire County Council had sought to defend a decision taken in December last year to adopt the proposals, which would have seen 30 existing libraries handed over to community groups. The authority would have continued to staff the remaining 15 libraries and offer online and mobile services.

The authority hoped to save £2m by implementing the plans.

In Draper v Lincolnshire County Council [2014] EWHC 2388 the claimant, a Lincoln resident, advanced four grounds of challenge. These were that:

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  • the consultation undertaken by Lincolnshire was unlawful as the decision had already been taken;
  • the council failed to ensure that the harm that was going to be caused by their decision was prevented, as required by the Equality Act;
  • Lincolnshire failed to properly consider a proposal by Greenwich Leisure Limited (a not-for-profit agency which had bid to run the library service). As a result the council had failed in its duties under the Localism Act;
  • if the cuts went ahead Lincolnshire’s library service would no longer be comprehensive and efficient and therefore would breach national requirements.

Mr Justice Collins concluded that the means by which Lincolnshire decided and reached its decision in December 2013 was flawed.

The judge said he had identified shortcomings in the consultation exercise, whilst the council had also failed to deal properly with the application by Greenwich Leisure (a charitable organisation which already runs library services for two London boroughs).

“I do not think the defendant can on the one hand defend the consultation exercise on the basis that the reduction of the statutory service was not fixed at only 15 static libraries to be provided but general proposals could be entertained and on the other hand reject the expression of interest from GLL since it did not fall within the scope of the consultation,” he said.

The judge did find, however, that the council had fulfilled its duty in relation to s. 149 of the Equality Act 2010. “It identified the possible areas of discrimination and identified measures which it believed would ensure that there was no unlawful discrimination. That exercise was not irrational.”

Mr Justice Collins said if the consultation were the only successful ground of challenge, he might not have granted relief since the proposals were accepted and considered.

“But the manner in which GLL's proposals were dealt with coupled with the view that they did not fall within the consultation exercise persuade me that the decision must be quashed. The council must, I fear, reconsider,” he said.

“It may be that the most sensible way ahead is to obtain the necessary further details from GLL and perhaps consult further for a shorter period on whether any overall alternative proposal is forthcoming. That is a matter for the council.”

Responding to the ruling, Lincolnshire said the judgment meant that the proposed changes would need to be reviewed by the county’s Executive after an additional period of consultation.

Richard Wills, Executive Director, said: “We are, of course, disappointed with the decision. We believe that our proposals would have increased library provision in the county, while also making substantial savings, meaning taxpayers would be getting a much better deal.

“The judge agreed there was a need to make savings, that our proposals would meet our statutory duties and that we’d carefully considered the impact on all residents. However, his decision means we will now need to undertake further consultation and re-examine the proposal from Greenwich Leisure Ltd.”

Wills added: “Ironically, although we must consider that proposal as a community offer to take over the council’s services under the Localism Act, it could lead to the library service being put out to procurement and outsourced to a commercial organisation.”

Lincolnshire’s Executive Director said the council remained open-minded about what happened next. “However, we need to take time to consider the best way forward, and will announce our next steps in the near future.”

He added: “What this judgment doesn’t change is the need for us to find further yearly savings of £90m by 2018.”

Paul Heron, the solicitor at law firm Public Interest Lawyers who had conduct of the case, said: “When this legal challenge was launched we called on Lincolnshire County Council to think again, and seriously re-consider the cuts they had proposed. They ignored my client, dismissed his claims that the consultation was flawed, and ignored the fact that the cuts could be avoided.

“The Court has listened and ruled that Lincolnshire County Council’s proposals, which would have decimated the library service and cost hundreds of jobs, were wrong as a matter of law.”

John Hough, spokesman for the campaign group Save Lincolnshire Libraries, said: “We hope this decision will mean that people throughout Lincolnshire will continue to be able to access a properly run public library service which will continue to be run by experienced staff supported by volunteers. Who will run this service is now open to question.

“What came out in court is that Greenwich Leisure is a substantial organisation with lots of ideas about how to maintain, run and improve the library service and they and others like them should now have an opportunity to properly put forward their plans.”

He added: “While Save Lincolnshire Libraries would have preferred the library service to remain with the county council, it has become clear that they are unwilling to invest in and maintain the service now and in the future. In our view a new provider would now be the best option.”

Hough said: “Throughout this process Save Lincolnshire Libraries has on many occasions said that the county council could have stopped the legal process if it had listened to the people of Lincolnshire and changed its plans. It consistently refused to do so and has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money trying to impose and then defend the indefensible.”

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