A MAJOR drive to establish a wide network of community libraries in Devon's rural areas is to be launched by Devon County Council.

The community libraries will be developed as an alternative to the current mobile library service which is faced with falling numbers of users and rising costs.

Members of Devon's Cabinet agreed this month to decommission the ageing mobile library vehicles and set aside cash to help community groups and parish councils set up new community libraries.

The Cabinet heard that less than 3,000 people out of Devon's 815,000 population now used the mobile libraries.

Nearly three quarters of the stops attracted less than five people. Over the last 10 years there had been a 73 per cent reduction in visits and a 68 per cent reduction in book issues.

The Cabinet member responsible for libraries, Roger Croad, said it was a very sad but inevitable decision.

He told councillors: “I’ve been responsible for Devon’s libraries for 14 years and this was a very sad decision for me to put forward.

“But the decline in demand speaks for itself. To borrow a book from a mobile library costs more than twice as much as a static library.

“Despite the budget for libraries reducing from £12 million in 2009 to £8 million in 2022, we still have 50 static libraries which we have worked hard to retain. But we just cannot afford the mobile service anymore.”

He said Devon would now work with local organisations and community groups to create a bespoke service for communities that wanted one.

Councillors heard the four library vehicles are close to becoming obsolete and are increasingly off the road for repairs and maintenance. It would cost £637,000 to replace them, £736,000 to lease the vehicles over three years and £799,000 for five years.

Devon's Head of Communities, Simon Kitchen, recommended councillors to delay de-commissioning the vehicles until the end of February to give time for alternatives to be put in place.

In a report to councillors he said: "Officers have held productive discussions with organisations which run buildings and social activities and clubs in rural communities.

"They have been very positive regarding future development and network opportunities. Many have existing book swap provision in parish and community halls where there is no current mobile library stop.

"There is an emerging network of community libraries across Devon from small informal bring and borrow schemes to thriving and formal independent libraries, with regular stock updates and access to wider services."

Mr Kitchen said Devon was talking to these groups and offering opportunities to link with the library service which can provide access to more stock, its on-line offer and other council and government services.

There were also opportunities to develop closer relationships with local schools, which have their own libraries, pre-schools and toddler groups.

He said the county council "has bucked the national trend" in keeping all its 50 fixed libraries open despite reductions in government funding and changes in traditional library use.

Devon had worked closely with its provider, Libraries Unlimited, and local communities and partners to transform the services on offer.

They now include IT, WiFi and printing, free digital books and magazines as well as better access and increased borrowing for young people through a bespoke service.

Many libraries responded to the cost of living crisis last winter by offering a warm and welcoming environment and companionship for people feeling isolated.

Existing services such as the Home Library Service which delivers books to people unable to get to a library though health, mobility or caring responsibilities could be extended along with the Good Neighbours scheme where friends, neighbours and family can collect books for people who are unable to get to the library.

Mr Kitchen said Devon was already talking to Devon Communities Together and the Devon Association of Local Councils about working with town and parish councils on developing and extending community libraries.

Networking events are planned for parishes and community libraries to share best practice and hear from library and community development advocates.

And the county council is creating a support resource for community libraries signposting best practice, development advice and ideas around funding and commercial opportunities.

But he said suggestions that the mobile library service could be kept running through commercial sponsorship, crowdfunding or support from parish councils were not practical.

"Whilst there are opportunities for sponsorship, commercial activity, additional charitable donations and alternative funding models - most of which have been previously pursued - it is unlikely that any combination in the current context would generate and sustain the required funding to maintain the existing level of service delivery indefinitely and to generate the initial outlay required to source and maintain a new fleet of vehicles," he told councillors.