CUTS of nearly £500,000 to South Gloucestershire libraries are “discriminatory” and will leave the council unable to meet its legal duty to provide a decent service, a union claims.

Lawyers have told Unison that the local authority will fail its requirement to run a “comprehensive and efficient” service under legislation.

The union says proposed reductions in staffed hours will have a “major impact” on employees, particularly women and those with disabilities, as well as young library users.

South Gloucestershire Council carried out a 12-week public consultation from October to January which gave four main options to slash £473,000 a year from its libraries budget.

It says it is committed to ensuring opening hours reflect when most people use the service but has vowed not to shut any branches.

Instead, the vast majority of the savings are expected to come from fewer staffed hours, although this was opposed by more than half of the 3,900 people who responded to the consultation.

Even more unpopular was a funding cut for books and other materials by a quarter, with 61 per cent of residents against the idea.

The other two options – a management restructure to reduce costs and removing the money for the “Third Party Enquiry Service”, described as a Google search but with a human that was no longer required and was used by only three people – received broad support.

The results were presented to scrutiny councillors ahead of a paper going to cabinet for a final decision on April 15.

More than 53 per cent of respondents said they would be less likely to visit their local library if staffing hours were cut, while 17 per cent said it would prevent them or their children from going at all.

In Unison’s submission, branch secretary Dan Smart said: “South Glos is required (by law) to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service under Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

“Unison have sought legal advice to suggest this will not be provided with continuing cuts to the service.

“The reduction in staffed hours will have a major impact on the remaining staff and service as a whole.

“Significantly, there will be no equivalent reduction in workload.

“There will be an increased burden of work on a reduced complement of staff.

“Since the previous cuts in 2016, staff have seen unprecedented increases in workload and a further increase would be unsustainable.”

He said the district’s libraries had a high proportion of part-time, female and disabled employees, so there would be “gender discrimination” and an increased risk for those with disabilities if the changes meant increasingly having to work alone.

Mr Smart said: “Reducing staffed opening hours would be discriminatory to young people who use the service for studying, as closing libraries earlier and a number of libraries losing a half or whole day would drastically reduce their accessibility. 

“Unison are completely opposed to these cuts which reduce jobs for our members and target a vital service in our communities.”

South Gloucestershire Council director of place Andrew Birch told the scrutiny commission on Wednesday, March 27: “We’ve been in constant communication with DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport], the central government department that regulates the library service, and we have followed their advice and guidance on how to conduct this consultation.

“We have also undertaken a comprehensive needs analysis as part of the process of coming up with the proposals for the library service which was in keeping with DCMS advice of how to ensure we do have a correct statutory library service going forwards.”

Libraries operations manager Patsy To said government officials were “very happy” that the correct consultation process had been followed.

She said council officers were confident the required statutory service would be provided.

Cllr Tristan Clark (Lib Dem, Frampton Cotterell) said: “Obviously nobody in this room wants to see staffing hours cut, particularly if it impacts the ability of residents to access library services, but at the same time we need to provide our residents with security in terms of knowing when their libraries are going to be open.

“Our neighbours in Bristol are randomly notifying residents of closures, so there is no predictability there.”

Council co-leader Cllr Ian Boulton (Labour, Staple Hill & Mangotsfield) told the meeting: “The consultation responses have been huge and really helpful.”

He said that as a result of the feedback, cabinet member for communities and local place Cllr Leigh Ingham (Labour, Kingswood) and officers had “worked really hard to find money to try to mitigate some of the cuts that were originally planned”.

SGC statement 

A council spokesperson said: “We have received significant amounts of feedback through the public consultation on potential changes to the library services and we are in the process of considering these views before bringing a set of proposals to cabinet for their decision in the middle of April.

“The budget agreed in February 2023 required us to reduce spending on the service.

“We have taken the time since then to explore options and alternatives to keep all of our libraries open and to use both our expert and valued library staff, as well as technology, to maintain access to this important service.

“It is also worth noting that while there is a statutory requirement on councils to maintain a library service, what that level of service should look like is not defined.

“While no decisions have yet been taken, our commitment remains to ensuring that our library opening hours reflect when we know existing users most want to use the service.”