Updated | Bailey & Others v London Borough of Brent Council  EWHC 2572 (Admin) – Read judgment
Every Wednesday my daughter looks forward to the arrival of the mobile library at her nursery. Two by two the children go into the little world of books and emerge holding a new story they have chosen for themselves.
Not for long. Despite the well-documented advantages of exposing children to the joys of reading at an early age – before the attractions of TV, video games and looting shops take hold – library services across the land are being targeted for cuts.
The duty to provide library services for children was one of the key arguments advanced by campaigners in Brent challenging the council’s decision to close 6 of its 12 libraries. Reliance was placed upon section 7 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. This requires local authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service.
There were also complaints about the public consultation process. It was claimed that the Council had failed to provide sufficient library running costs information to enable participants to respond properly. It then failed properly to consider proposals to retain some services with the assistance of voluntary groups. The Claimants also argued that the Council had failed to have regard to its Equality Duties under the Equality Act 2010 at a formative stage of the proposals.
All these grounds failed before Mr. Justice Ouseley, in a resounding defeat for the campaigners. In his view the consultation process was extensive and did provide sufficient information to enable a proper response. Moreover, the Equality Impact Assessment carried out by the local authority was informed, thorough, conscientious and timely. Further, he noted that the availability of resources was relevant to what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient service; the library service and s 7 duty were not exempt from resource issues.
In relation to the proposal to involve voluntary groups to save services, the council had fulfilled its duty under section 7(2) to consider alternative means of provision of library services. It had not closed its mind to the proposal but had been entitled to conclude that the business case was not robust and ultimately to reject it.
He considered that the arguments against the Council’s decision to close the libraries amounted to a factual debate about the merits. Whilst the judge acknowledged that there was room for legitimate debate on the effectiveness of the Council’s plans and whether every point raised against them had been addressed, this was not a measure of the lawfulness of its assessment. The Claimants had not shown that the assessment was irrational or obviously seriously deficient to the extent necessary for the court to find it unlawful. In fact, on the material the judge had seen it appeared that the decision was “obviously lawful”.
The judge refused permission to appeal and following the judgment it was reported that Brent took immediate steps to board up libraries, leading to an application for an injunction and an agreement yesterday by the Council to take no further irrevocable steps to prevent the libraries from reopening. The Court of Appeal has now granted permission to appeal and it is understood that this will be an expedited hearing.
In addition, the matter may also be considered by the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport who has a duty under s1 of the 1964 Act to “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service…and to secure the proper discharge” by local authorities of their library functions. He is able under s10 of the 1964 Act to hold a public inquiry upon receipt of complaints about a failure of an authority to carry out its duties under the Act.
Meanwhile the campaign gathers pace, with high profile supporters such as Philip Pullman – and possibly low profile supporters like my toddler - set to join the demonstration outside Kensal Rise library at the weekend.
Update, 23 October 2011 – The Children and Families Minister Sarah Teather has asked the Secretary of State to intervene in the case. She said by way of a statement:
Everyone I talk to in Brent wants the libraries to stay open and I hope that the Labour Council can take this opportunity to reflect on their actions, see sense and start talking to local people.
I have today written to the council’s Chief Executive to urge him to sit down and speak to library campaigners and community groups to see if there is any way that we can keep these vital facilities open. Many of the Library groups are willing to take the lead in running the six libraries – they just need to be given the chance.
Shaheen Rahman is a barrister at 1 Crown Office Row chambers.
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