Campaign group Save Barnet Libraries (SBL) has sent a letter before claim to Barnet Council as it seeks to challenge the London borough’s plans for future library services.
SBL alleges errors in Barnet’s latest consultation, which was the local authority’s second covering libraries in 2015 and closes tomorrow (6 January).
The council’s plans, which are due to be implemented this April, are aimed at saving £2.27m by 2020. The proposals would see 14 sites retained, with three types of library: ‘Core Plus’; ‘Core’; and ‘Partnership’; the latter will only be staffed by volunteers.
The proposals would involve a reduction in staffed hours (to between 15.5 and 23 per week, according to SBL). Outside these hours users will use entry systems to gain access. A pilot of the technology, which Barnet claims will deliver increased opening hours, is being carried out in Edgware.
SBL has funded its claim through the CrowdJustice website and instructed John Halford, a partner at law firm Bindmans.
The letter before claim sets out seven grounds of challenge:
“1. in breach of well-established public law principles governing consultation processes, the Council has not adequately explained its current proposals to consultees, preventing them from making an informed response (‘Ground 1’);
2. the adverse effects of the current proposals will be felt by some more than others, yet inadequate measures are being taken to ensure the views of those who will be worst affected are sought so the nature and extent of this impact cannot be understood by the Council when a final decision is made (in fact, the current consultation process is less thorough than the last) (‘Ground 2’);
3. a single question is asked about an obvious, cost-saving alternative to the current proposals (co-location of libraries and other Council services which would have obvious advantages over, say, letting part of the library estate, because the Council would be in control of its own assets and not subject to market pressures) but, despite a commitment from the Council to explore it, this has never been properly developed, still less consulted upon in a meaningful way (‘Ground 3’);
4. having sensibly decided to trial unattended library services, the Council has failed to reproduce the conditions under which an unattended library would operate and neither has it conducted an adequate risk assessment making the products of the trial wholly unreliable (‘Ground 4’); and
5. these failures, individually and compendiously, make it impossible for the Council to lawfully discharge its obligations to guard against risks to public safety under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (‘the 1974 Act’), assess local need for library services under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (‘the 1964 Act’) and to have due regard to the equality consequences of restricted access associated with the proposed unattended service for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 (‘the 2010 Act’) (‘Grounds 5, 6 and 7’).”
SBL campaigner Emily Burnham said: “They’re keeping the buildings open but reducing the service so severely there’ll be almost nothing left. The consultation is much more limited than last year’s and it doesn’t even say what hours my library will be staffed.”
A Barnet Council spokesman said: “We can confirm we have received a ‘letter before claim’ which we are currently reviewing and it would not be appropriate to comment on its contents.”