A COUNCILLOR has questioned the level of public support for 'open access’ at the district’s libraries, after the South Gloucestershire Council’s annual performance report revealed that just 13 per cent of eligible users have signed up for the scheme.

‘Open access’ swipe-cards were introduced into nine South Gloucestershire libraries last year as a cost-saving measure, with users needing to register to gain access during unstaffed hours.

In parallel, staffed hours were cut by 30 per cent across the district.

At the council’s cabinet meeting last week, Cllr Pat Rooney, leader of South Gloucestershire’s Labour councillors, questioned the 13 per cent take-up of the scheme.

Afterwards she said: “The council’s official performance report tells us that, as of April, 3,655 library users had signed up for ‘open access’, which equates to around 13 per cent of all eligible library users.

"When I raised my concerns at cabinet about this low figure they were dismissed by the Tories, who continue to boast that this is a great system and an exemplar for future value for money improvements.

"It is surely a false economy if cost-cutting changes result in very few residents actually using the new service.

"The ‘open access’ swipe-card system has been in place for several months now, so the low registration levels cannot be casually dismissed as teething problems.

"Unless the Tories improve the take-up of the scheme, their flagship policy is in danger of hitting the rocks.”

Cllr Rooney also noted that she believed that ‘open access’ technology has a role in enhancing staffed services but should not be used as a cover to cut the much-valued library staff.

In response, Cllr Paul Hughes, cabinet member for communities and tourism, said: “Open access has been successful in its first six months of operation, so much so that in response to user demand, we are going to extend early opening to 8am, particularly for the benefit of people making their way to work and college.

"For those with an open access membership, our libraries are open longer than ever.

“We encourage people to find out more and take up the opportunity to join in through open access, particularly if they found traditional opening hours inconvenient, if they had work or other 9-5 commitments.

“Our libraries are still staffed by our excellent, qualified staff, focussed on the times when we know they are most likely to be busy.

"By putting our libraries together in clusters, we have also made sure there is a library in each area open and staffed each weekday.

"Our staff continue to support people with reading, accessing digital services and encouraging children to read through the many activities on offer.

“Open access gives people a choice of service and the ability to use a library when it suits them.

"The council made the choice to pursue open access as a way to mitigate the savings that we had to make. Generally, by reducing hours across the board instead of closing branches, we are able to maintain a traditional library service and offer new options through new technology, representing improved value for money.

“Open access is continuing to attract new members and we continue to promote it in library branches and in other communications to the wider community.”

The annual performance report is online at https://council.southglos.gov.uk/documents/s97278/Council%20Plan%20Progress%20Report%20Cabinet%20Final%20June%2018.pdf .