Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Raft of Northern Ireland libraries face closure threat

More libraries in Northern Ireland could close because of spending cuts, it was revealed today.

Multimillion-pound savings have to be made in the coming years with a recruitment freeze, reduced book stock and shorter opening hours all possibilities, the chief executive of Libraries NI warned.

Staff sickness or pregnancy in small rural premises could force closure because they cannot be replaced.

Libraries head Irene Knox told a Stormont committee: "If we close a library as a result of having to make savings in this sort of process it is very unlikely that even if things get better in four years' time that library will be able to open again because you will have decreased the service."

Today Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said Executive decisions on how to bear the looming £2 billion spending cuts will be the most difficult in living memory.

The Coalition at Westminster is expected to outline further cuts next month. It argues that all the money was spent by the previous government and the UK is borrowing too much.

But Ms Knox told the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee the reality on the ground was that frontline services could be axed once the exact budget was known.

"We may have to return and look at our whole service again in terms of what is affordable and what is not affordable," she added.

A total of 10 Belfast libraries were earmarked for closure during last May's wave of savings because they needed modernisation and the cost was not justified by declining usage.

By the end of this year 54 senior and middle-management positions will have been removed from the libraries service. Savings of £1.8 million have been made over last year and this.

The chief executive said a similar libraries' audit to that in Belfast may have to be extended to the rest of the country.

In rural branches there are often only two staff and to open with less would be prohibited on health and safety grounds. Yet the recruitment freeze means either transferring other staff or closing premises should an employee become ill.

Ms Knox said libraries were neutral venues and sources of learning and knowledge.

"A lot of the very good work that we do in terms of promoting a shared future and promoting cohesion will suffer. A lot of the programmes that we offer are about building a shared future," she added.

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