I have been following with interest the furore following Wirral council’s decision to close half its public library branches, and to transform the remainder into multi-purpose centres. This is not just because I come from this part of North-West England, but also because the issues have led to a new form of intervention from the government.
Britain has very few laws relating to libraries – many fewer than in most Continental European countries, for example – but the main one of these is the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which requires local government to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. The protestors against the library closures have convinced the government, in the form of Andy Burnham the Culture Secretary, to treat them as a potential breach of the law. Rather late in the day, and seemingly reluctantly, the government has ordered a inquiry to decide whether the council’s statutory duty has been breached.
Though this may not seem a particularly dramatic step, it is the first time in professional memory that such a thing has been done. In 1990, the then Minister threatened Derbyshire County Council with a similar inquiry into library closures, but the authority pre-empted him by holding their own inquiry first, and changing their minds about the closures. Since then, ministers have restricted themselves to writing aggrieved letters to erring councils.
We await the findings of the inquiry, if indeed Wirral council does not back down. It would be nice if it meant than the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees most library matters in the UK, were going to take an interest in something other than the S part of its remit in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics.