Three Lewisham libraries are to be transferred to community organisations in response to a £1million budget cut.
After a month-long consultation, Mayor of Lewisham Sir Steve Bullock supported shifting responsibility for Forest Hill, Manor House and Torridon Road libraries out of council hands. The libraries will be community-run from August next year.
The changes will save the council £1 million over the next two years. Lewisham Council needs to make cuts of £45 million from its budget over the same period.
Sir Steve said at the council meeting last Monday evening: “None of this is something that I would choose to do under different circumstances. We’re in a situation where a government elected with a majority has decided to reduce the size of the state.
“I’m clear that the choice we face is between doing something now, or facing a situation in two or three years’ time where we would be closing down libraries in their entirety.”
Lewisham’s library services have already seen substantial cuts in the past five years. The newly approved changes will reduce the number of council-run libraries in the borough to three, down from 12 in 2011. Blackheath, Crofton Park, Grove Park, New Cross and Sydenham lost their council-run status in 2011 as a result of budget cuts and are already run by community organisations.
The vast majority of residents who responded to a public consultation on the council’s proposals were against the cuts to the borough’s libraries.
The Lewisham branches of public sector workers unions Unison and Unite, the Lewisham Green Party, the Lewisham branch of Momentum, People Before Profit and other groups protested outside Monday’s council meeting alongside library users. They carried banners encouraging Labour-run Lewisham Council to fight back against cuts imposed by central government.
A spokesperson from Defend Torridon Road Library said: “Libraries in Britain have withstood two wars, times of huge deprivation. Now in the 21st century, we’re talking about cutting them. To the council, we say: lose some of your fears of government threats.”
The spokesperson said that Torridon Road Library is frequently used by pupils from three nearby primary schools. Some of them live in cramped and noisy accommodation and the library is the only safe space near their homes where they can study.
Peter Richardson, a member of the Users and Friends of Manor House Library, said that education in Lewisham is under the microscope and questioned the wisdom of cutting library services. The borough had the worst GCSE results in London in 2014.
“The libraries will become community centres with books, rather than libraries,” Richardson said.
Michael Abrahams, chair of the Forest Hill Society, pointed to a dramatic decrease in book borrowing from some of the community-run libraries.
Other campaigners said that Crofton Park and Sydenham libraries nearly closed in the past year and struggle to afford heating. Signs currently in the windows of New Cross library are appealing for volunteers, saying that numbers are at an “all time low”.
But the council’s director of community services Aileen Buckton said the decline in book borrowing was in line with national trends, and that visits to the libraries are going up. She added that most secondary school students prefer to engage with libraries online rather than borrow books physically.
Most respondents to the public consultation asked the council to make cuts to other areas rather than to the library service, and expressed concern that the council was not considering their views.
“We’ve been consulted, but not listened to,” said the Defend Torridon Road Library spokesperson.