Update on review of Northumberland libraries and tourist information services

The old Morpeth Library site.
The old Morpeth Library site.
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Active Northumberland has provided an update on steps in a review and integration of library and tourist information services across the county.

In March this year, the charity announced plans to make changes to its organisational structure and began formal consultation with staff and unions.

Proposals for library and tourist information centre services have been designed to retain and improve services, bringing them together with other facilities where possible and developing them to meet the needs of residents and visitors in the future.

In the future, the tourist information service will be run as a more efficient model, utilising the latest technology and working in partnership with other areas of council services such as libraries, leisure and customer services, as well as other organisations, to reduce costs and provide a more flexible, modern approach to service delivery.

By combining services on fewer sites and sharing accommodation and staffing, the cost of services can also be reduced. Combining services will also mean longer opening times for visitors, and in some locations, it will provide the public with a one-stop shop for their information, library and leisure needs.

The council wants all frontline library and tourist staff to be ambassadors for tourism in the county and they will receive additional training and support so that they can deal with the services that people still wish to access face to face.

The organisation is also responding to the changing needs of visitors – the majority of which find information and make accommodation bookings online rather than at an information centre. Only around seven per cent of people visiting Northumberland go to a tourist information centre.

A number of services have already been integrated, for example, in Berwick, Hexham and Cramlington, and other changes are under way.

The proposals and changes to date are:

Services are integrated at main sites such as Cramlington, Bedlington, Morpeth, Ponteland, Ashington, Blyth, Berwick and Hexham;

Morpeth Library is co-located at a new site in Manchester Street;

Guidepost Library is moved into Cleeswell Hill Centre alongside Schools Library Service;

Retail goods at tourist information sites are reduced or removed over the next 12 months and alternative methods of providing those services are considered, including working with local businesses;

Active Northumberland’s back-office functions and administration support are combined within a central unit at County Hall for resilience and efficiency;

Mobile library services are reviewed and options to work in partnership with others are considered to make services more efficient.

Lorraine Dewison, chief executive of Active Northumberland, said: “The advent and progression of real-time, digital information has and will continue to impact on the core function of tourist information. It is essential that our services evolve to meet the needs of current day visitors by providing a service at complements and works alongside other mediums.

“With the emergence of readily available digital information and the financial challenges faced by local authorities across the country, the tradition of the tourist information centre is in decline – with Northumberland the last authority in the North East to retain the service.

“We as a charity need to reduce costs in the region of £3.5million over the next two years, but this is not the sole reason for these changes. We are planning to develop the service to meet current customer needs and also to work in partnership with other council-supported services as well as other organisations within the community to deliver services in the most cost-effective and customer-friendly way.

“We are planning to reduce posts with voluntary redundancy wherever possible and will do everything we can to avoid any compulsory redundancies.

“We have an exciting future ahead and these proposals will help to ensure we are on a firm footing to embrace it.”

Coun Val Tyler, cabinet member for arts, leisure and culture at Northumberland County Council, said: “We are all aware that the council has to save £58million over the next four years – and that is going to be no mean feat. We understand, however, the huge value of libraries and information centres to residents and visitors, and these plans will help us to maintain services albeit delivering them in a different way.

“We want all our frontline staff to be ambassadors for our wonderful county and through providing additional training and support we will see staff at all centres being able to provide information to visitors.”

The review update was provided to the council’s arts, leisure and culture overview and scrutiny committee yesterday and will be considered by the cabinet on Tuesday, September 13.

Active Northumberland hopes that reductions in staffing levels can be achieved through voluntary redundancy or by redeploying staff.