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Suffolk Libraries face £230,000 budget cut as bosses call for more public support to save all 44 branches

PUBLISHED: 07:00 22 November 2016 | UPDATED: 07:17 22 November 2016

Clare Library. Pic: Tudor Morgan Owen.

Clare Library. Pic: Tudor Morgan Owen.

Communities may have to step up their efforts to keep open their local library after proposals for significant budget cuts were unveiled.

Suffolk Libraries could face a £230,000 reduction to their budget from Suffolk County Council (SCC) in 2017/18. Its current budget of £6.14million has already fallen from £8.9m in 2010/11.

Library bosses last night reiterated a commitment to not closing any of the 44 libraries in Suffolk or reducing opening hours. But they admitted they would need more of the public’s “extraordinary” support to retain services.

Suffolk Libraries became a separate organisation from SCC in 2012, but relies on the authority for its main source of funding.

SCC papers, released before a scrutiny committee meeting on November 30, state there will be no “detrimental impact on the service to the public” and “services to vulnerable people would not be affected”. It said there are no plans to close libraries.

Tony Brown, chairman of the Suffolk Libraries board, said: “Over the past year we have made it clear that it would be impossible to make further cuts without having an effect on services.

“We pledged to work constructively with the council on the longer-term future of the county’s library service and offered them a plan in June in which we suggested ways we could save money over a longer period, and which would allow us to keep library opening hours intact.

“Five months later, it’s disappointing to see that the council’s budget proposals do not reflect the alternative plans we presented.

“The larger sums required will almost certainly mean we can’t carry on providing the library service in the same way.

“Suffolk Libraries’ board is committed to keeping libraries open and for local services to flourish. The Suffolk community has shown a huge amount of support for local libraries over the past few years, and this has never been more needed, or valued.”

Under the proposals, the library budget would fall to £5.91m – a 34% fall since 2010/11.

Alison Wheeler, chief executive of Suffolk Libraries, who has previously spoken about harnessing the “goodwill in communities” and becoming more “inventive”, said there will be more self-services.

She added: “Each year (Suffolk Libraries) has lived within its means and saved increasing amounts of council tax.

“This has only been done with the sustained hard work of library staff, help from community groups, local volunteers and support from library customers.

“With this extraordinary support, we have together ensured that all Suffolk libraries are still open, local library opening hours have been sustained and services have flourished.” Sandy Martin, leader of the Labour Group at SCC, said: “Even if there are not yet any plans to close particular libraries, Labour councillors are worried that some closures might be inevitable.

“And there will be less staff, less opening hours, less books and films and music to borrow, less events, less outreach to our children and older people and people trying to improve their language skills.”

Meanwhile, Suffolk County Council is looking at making cuts of more than £30million next year in a bid to keep a tight rein on council tax bills in the run-up to the local elections.

Its members are up for election next year and it is facing a shortfall of £41m in its budget.

However it is preparing to dip into its reserves in a bid to keep the cuts down to about £31m and to hold basic council tax rates at their current level.

It has not ruled out a supplementary council tax rise to cover an increase in the cost of social care if that is recommended by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Autumn Statement which will be announced tomorrow.

The council’s expenditure for next year has been set at £474.1m, a reduction on the £492.8m planned to be spent this year.

However if the current level of spending was to be maintained, the council would have needed £515.7m to account for inflationary pressures.

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for finance, Richard Smith, said: “Due to the continuing difficulties with local government finance, the budget proposals for the forthcoming year are very tight.

“I said last year we were holding reserves for difficult times ahead but the pips really are squeaking now.

“The draft budget is likely to alter between now and the end of January as figures are finalised.

“Between £10million and £12m from the council’s reserves will be used to balance our budget but we remain committed to our two priority areas – caring for vulnerable older people and safeguarding young people at risk.

“Despite very evident financial pressures I hope to be able to increase the budgets covering these two key areas to help keep the commitment we have made to the people of Suffolk.”

Opposition politicians were concerned about the proposals:

The first chance councillors will have to make comments on the budget is at the scrutiny committee meeting next Wednesday.

The budget will be settled at the end of February and council tax bills will be sent out in April.

The whole county council is up for election on May 4 next year.

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