East London borough plans to axe nearly half their libraries to save £300,000

Almost half the libraries in Havering will be closed in a bid to save the council £300,000 a year, as it faces severe financial pressures.

Havering Council has launched a public consultation on the future of five libraries in the borough, with a view to permanently shuttering four of the ten it operates.

Though the council needs to find ways to plug its budget gap of £32.5million, critics have said closing libraries in the borough should be a “last resort”.

Councillor Paul Middleton, the cabinet member for cultural services, blamed the government’s “outdated funding formula” and its own budget shortfall for the “painful” closures.

He said: “Our libraries and staff provide a fantastic service to residents. They are places where all ages and communities can come together for study, activities, support and wellbeing.

“Libraries also support our physical and mental health, helping residents in becoming less lonely and connecting others digitally via free internet access.”

He added: “The proposals to reduce the number of libraries is one of many painful decisions we will need to make until we get a better deal from the government that accurately reflects the borough’s changing population and needs.”

The libraries under threat of closure are:

- Collier Row Library in Romford

- Elm Park Library in Hornchurch

- Gidea Park Library

- Harold Wood Library

- South Hornchurch Library

Romford Central Library, Harold Hill Library, Hornchurch Library, Upminster Library and Rainham Library will all remain open.

The council has also proposed slashing their budgets to buy new stock by a one-off reduction of £161,000 (around 61%), and then decreasing it by a further £60,000 over the next two years.

By retaining just six centres – which see more than 80% of visits per year, according to council data – the authority hopes to put the extra £300,000 towards a more balanced budget.

It will also be able to invest more into its libraries with a smaller portfolio, Cllr Middleton added.

He said: “We believe a smaller number of libraries means we can also provide better buildings and facilities to residents with the limited money we have.”

Havering has floated the idea of developing a new children’s library, with support for children with special educational needs, as part of its five-year library strategy that will launch this year.

However, Gabby Lawler, the Havering branch secretary for the UNISON union, said the council should instead explore alternatives to closures.

She said in a statement: “The consultation proposes to close four libraries across Havering, which should be a last resort. We advocate and believe in exploring alternative solutions such as partnership programmes and innovation to ensure the continuation of these vital and statutory services.

“Investment in this service has been lacking over many years and, if these proposals go ahead, they will have a detrimental impact on the local community, the poorest and most vulnerable. It will not only harm our current generation, it is a betrayal of future ones.”

Conservative councillor David Taylor, who represents Romford, said shutting the libraries was a “tragedy,” adding: “Libraries are centres of cultural excellence and must be protected.”

He said: “Whilst we are all aware of the financial situation in Havering, closing libraries is short sighted. Across London, councils are redeveloping libraries with housing above to cover costs. If Havering did this then we could house families and use the saving to keep libraries open.

“Unfortunately, despite over 40 questions in their consultation, this administration is not asking residents for alternatives.”

Havering accepted a £54m loan from Westminster back in February, after finding itself teetering on the edge of effective bankruptcy.

The loan came with two conditions attached: the development of a financial recovery plan and the end of any nebulously-defined “superfluous” spending.

The consultation on the libraries’ future, in the form of a lengthy online questionnaire comprising 41 questions, will run for twelve weeks until 2nd August.

Residents are asked how often they visit their local library, which services they use, and if anything prevents them from visiting more frequently, including transport issues or limited opening hours.

Havering will also host a series of face-to-face events across the borough in the coming weeks, but no dates have been confirmed.