Coffee, cakes and Catherine Cookson

CAFES could be introduced into Northumberland libraries to make them more viable, councillors have said.

A review of library services was set up by Northumberland County Council in 2009 following discussions with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

Consultants Shared Intelligence were appointed to help develop a business plan to make the service more sustainable and efficient.

And a seven-point action plan was recommended that included expanding the role of libraries, assessing whether current buildings are sustainable, changing stock management arrangements, re-designing the libraries’ website and reviewing routes and stops for mobile services.

Now the council is starting to put the plan into action and is working on a merger of the library service with its registration and customer service departments.

But some councillors have said the proposals do not go far enough.

Coun Barrie Crowther, of Cramlington, said: “This report is not radical enough.

“It says that local authorities have an obligation to provide an effective library service, but nowhere does it mention charging for libraries. I’m not putting that forward, but in Germany people are charged for libraries.

“There is nothing to say let’s do some experiments with libraries. Let’s put a cafe in and other services in and see if that works.”

Coun Peter Jackson, representing Ponteland South with Heddon, agreed that more could be done to generate income.

“What this report might include is much more innovative ways of using facilities and trying to get some income in terms of bringing in some coffee houses,” he said.

“In other parts of the country that has been very successful indeed. I would like us to be going down that line.”

He also called for a review of management structures before any cuts to frontline services are considered.

“I have seen the figures over a number of years and we do have very large management overheads in the library service,” he said.

“This is a significant proportion of the costs of running the service. I would like to have a much more reduced spend on that before we start closing rural libraries or library services.”

The comments were made at a meeting of the council’s Communities and Place Scrutiny Committee as members received an update on the strategic library service review and future libraries programme.

But councillors were concerned at the lack of input they have had in the process.

Committee Chairman Glen Sanderson said: “We feel it is really important for the sake of clarity and transparency that there should be a sounding board of members. To have no input whatsoever from a sounding board is totally unacceptable.

“If you look at the section on libraries on the website you will see that every one of them is closed at least one day a week. Where is the modernity? Where is the forward thinking and the sparking of ideas? We hoped to be able to put these things forward in a sounding board, but we haven’t been allowed to set them down.

“We are all getting very frustrated.”

Council Executive Member for Customer Relations and Culture Neil Bradbury said there is no intention to cut services and he promised that a sounding board to discuss the review will be established early this summer.

“As the portfolio holder there is total commitment from me about getting these sounding boards working over the summer,” he said.

“This is not about deciding which libraries are unsustainable and will be axed, it is about making sure there will be a library service in all our communities and that it is sustainable.

“I don’t think anyone in the Executive is in any doubt that we are not one of those councils that are going to cut libraries.”