Community groups willing to run Sheffield libraries for free fear their plans could be wrecked by council proposals to charge ‘market rents’.
Rental charges, which could range from hundreds to thousands of pounds a month, are being considered – even though many libraries are owned by the council so it does not have any mortgage or rental costs.
Sheffield Council says it could close 16 of 27 community libraries to save £1.6 million a year unless volunteers come forward to run them.
Matt Kik, of the Save Totley Library campaign, said: “It would be unrealistic to charge volunteers market rents to run a library.
“There is a danger community groups would not be able to afford it and branches would then close, even when there are people willing to keep them open.”
Protests are continuing against the library cuts, with one demonstration held already at Greenhill Library and another to take place outside Jordanthorpe Library next Wednesday, November 6, at 3.30pm.
And schoolgirl campaigner Anna Mayer has enlisted the help of staff and pupils at her school, Lydgate Juniors, for a demonstration on November 18, opposing the closure of Broomhill Library. The 11-year-old will lead around 100 classmates on a march down Manchester Road to the library, armed with placards and banners, urging city bosses to re-think proposals.
The Year 6 pupil said: “Broomhill Library is the only library for quite a distance around.
“Ecclesall and Walkey libraries, the next closest, take a long time to get to, and it would prevent schoolchildren and others without transport to get to books at all without buying them.
“But it’s not just that. Our library is a great part of our community, especially the people who work there, and without them we would be lost. They’ve become our friends over the years.
“I cannot highlight how much it matters to us and where we would be without it. The library has been there for all our lives and we have become accustomed to wandering in and out, getting books, those who don’t have access to computers at home using the ones at the library instead, and seeing the staff there every day.
“It’s a massive part of our education and how we live our lives.”
The report about rental charges – buried in a wealth of council documents – says: “Use of buildings will be subject to negotiation with the council’s property and facilities management service, likely to require full market rent.”
Voluntary groups are already being asked to contribute to running costs of each library they keep open – up to £24,000 a year.
Coun Colin Ross, Sheffield Council’s opposition Liberal Democrat deputy leader and Dore and Totley councillor, said: “If the council is serious about allowing community groups to keep libraries open, it should stop putting obstacles in their way.
“Meeting the running costs is already likely to be a struggle – but charging market rents for buildings that in most cases the council already own is wrong.”
Coun Mazher Iqbal, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for communities, said the plan to charge market rents was aimed at commercial operators if they came forward to take over libraries.
No exemption is mentioned for community and voluntary groups but Coun Iqbal said the council would look to ‘make arrangements’.
He said: “I apologise for the confusion and will look into the document which has been published.”
Running costs of libraries quoted to community groups (not including rents):
Upperthorpe £0 – as the building is shared with other organisations.