Tuesday, June 25, 2024

West Berkshire Libraries in trouble

West Berkshire’s libraries are at breaking point because of lack of funding and an over reliance on volunteer staff.

A report to the council’s executive committee says the current funding model, which relies on voluntary contributions from parish and town councils in order to deliver a balanced budget, needs to be urgently reviewed. 

The libraries budget and staffing reduced in 2017 by 44 per cent. The revised budget for libraries was set at £1,046,000 for the new library service, a cut of £690,000.

Children’s centres have reduced to three family hubs and direct youth provision has very substantially reduced.

At the moment, the same level of service is delivered to the whole district, without consideration of whether or not a town/parish council has made a voluntary contribution towards the running costs of the library service. 

It says this level of library service provision is not sustainable without voluntary contributions being received. 

The report says the staffing is so lean that casual cover is needed for every staff absence, and current staffing levels at Newbury Library are ‘a cause for concern’ as they impact on the capacity to provide additional outreach services. 

There is, says the report,  a routine reliance on casual staff to be able to operate the service safely, in compliance with fire evacuation requirements, and this sometimes results in unplanned closures, if health and safety requirements cannot be met.

As the existing level of library service could not be met by the council’s service budget allocation alone, it was proposed that the £150,000 gap should be met by requesting town and parish councils to consider making a voluntary contribution of £1 per resident, based on the population of each parish for the next three years.

Contributions averaged £90,000 per year for the first three years, which created an annual budget deficit of £60,000.

Since then voluntary contributions from some town and parish councils have decreased.

In the two years prior to the pandemic, library usage in the district increased, which is in the contrast to the gradual decline in library usage nationally.

In 2019/20, there were 346,895 visits and 571,352 items borrowed. 

Visitor numbers have still not recovered to these levels, post pandemic. 

The library service is now in recovery and this is reflected in the data for 2021/22, when there were 201,657 visits and 553,903 items borrowed.

The report calls for closer and more effective partnership working with town and parish councils to confirm what they want from the library service, and how they can help WBC deliver it.

There are eight physical libraries in West Berkshire. Four (Pangbourne, Mortimer, Burghfield Common and Theale) are located on the eastern side of the local authority area. 

Three are along the Kennet Valley (Thatcham, Newbury and Hungerford) and one serves Lambourn, in the north west of the area. In addition, there is a mobile library service with 81 stops, an “At Home” service and the ability to borrow electronic items through the council’s e-library.

The current mobile library needs to be replaced with a vehicle which is more efficient to run.