STEPHEN Fry and children’s author Michael Rosen have backed a campaign to save Devon’s mobile libraries.
Earlier this month the county council’s ruling Conservative cabinet voted to close the service after hearing user numbers are down and three of its four library vans are coming to the end of their 'serviceable lives'.
Several opposition councillors criticised the plans, urging the cabinet to delay a decision, and the Liberal Democrats recently ‘called-in’ the move for further examination in September.
A campaign to save the libraries, set up by Torridge Lib Dem councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin, has since received more than 2,000 signatures and has now been backed by authors Stephen Fry and Michael Rosen.
In a statement sent to Cllr Cottle-Hunkin, Mr Fry said: 'Mobile libraries are lifelines for rural communities. I know. I grew up in the remote Norfolk countryside. The arrival every other Thursday of our mobile library quite literally changed my life.
'The idea that such a vital, beautiful, simple service should be denied to future generations is heartbreaking.'
Cllr Cottle-Hunkin said: 'Our rural communities are being left behind and the Tories are not listening. Why was no reserve funding set aside to replace the library vehicles when they reached the end of their useful life? This smacks of poor financial management.'
She added: 'It strikes me that their intention has always been to close the service, and there has been a complete lack of any imaginative thinking about developing or replacing the mobile service to meet the needs of isolated communities.'
Explaining why the service would close at the end of the year, Devon’s cabinet member for communities, Cllr Roger Croad (Conservative, Ivybridge), admitted earlier this month it was a 'sad day' but 'inevitable', explaining that it would cost between £600,000 and £800,000 to replace the three vehicles.
In the last decade, the number of books being borrowed has also fallen, although the fleet has been cut in half to just four vehicles in this time. The council has concluded the mobile libraries are no longer 'cost-effective' and 'not sustainable.'
Under the plans, the annual £217,000 cost of providing the mobile service would go to Libraries Unlimited, a charity that runs the library service across Devon and Torbay, to help sustain existing services amid cost increases.
A one-off £25,000 for 'transition support' would also be spent by the council so that current mobile library users can access alternative services.
The council says the plans are a 'reasonable solution to reducing costs' and 'will help to secure the wider sustainability of library services in Devon.'
Speaking at July’s cabinet meeting, Cllr Andrew Saywell (Conservative, Torrington Rural), added: 'The trend is very clear, unfortunately, that less and less [sic] people are using this service. And so, we have to look at how we deliver this differently.'
However, the ‘call-in’ by the opposition Lib Dems means no decision will now be taken until October.
Before then, the council’s scrutiny committee – when it meets in September – will consider the plans in further detail and could call on the council’s leadership to change its mind.