On 9 February, Conservative-run Suffolk County Council (SCC) is set to vote on the 2023/24 budget. It comes amidst government funding cuts that will inevitably have a knock-on effect on local services. This includes the Suffolk Library Service, which is facing a £600,000 shortfall in the new budget.
In response, the Opposition, made up of the Green, Liberal Democrats and Independents are proposing an amendment. They want to increase the council tax by 0.89% above the current proposal put forth by the administration. This amendment would generate an additional £3.362 million. That equates to a £9.94 annual rise (a 19p weekly rise) for a Band B property, which is the most common property type in Suffolk.
They believe it is important to provide adequate funding for the libraries, which are facing increased costs due to the current cost-of-living crisis and high inflation. The annual contract from the council is £1m less than it was in 2012, and the libraries now perform many additional functions, such as being a warm space for community events and increased educational use.
The Suffolk Library Service currently operates 45 libraries, 3 pop-up “Local” libraries, and a mobile service that makes 544 stops per month. The Opposition argues that these libraries play a crucial role in community development and should be funded appropriately.
It is able to use Reserves to cover around £300,000 of the shortfall. The proposal of an additional £300,000 would offset some of the unavoidable rising costs the library service is having to cope with.
Opposition Councillor Penny Otton points to the success of all the new services and events libraries around the county now offer to encourage their use, helping bring communities together. These include early years sessions for under-fives (Baby Bounce and Tot Rock), Top Time sessions for older people, and Open Space groups.
“Even now, with the cost-of-living crisis,” Otton says, “libraries are providing a warm space where people of all ages can meet, make friends, and take part in the countless activities. These have been fundamental during those times of isolation. The grant proposed by the council fails to acknowledge the importance of this vital service.”
Conservative Councillor Bobby Bennett, who is a Cabinet Member for Equality and Communities points to additional funding provided by developers that has been invested into library buildings, including opening a new library in Moreton Hall, supporting the development of community hubs, and improving facilities and services across the library network.
“We know that library services are important for our communities,” Bennett says. “Suffolk County Council has never closed a library. There will be no reduction in Suffolk Libraries budget in the coming year and a cabinet paper is already in the forward working plan to consider interim funding options to support Suffolk Library Services with the financial challenges they face.”
While there will be no budget reduction, libraries funding has remained the same since 2017. According to the Bank of England website, inflation has risen 18% in that time. This has the net effect of reducing the budget in real terms since it now buys almost a fifth less.
A recent impact report from the Suffolk Library Service shows that a £1 investment in the service generates a £8.04 return in social value to the county.
The report also states that if the libraries were to suddenly close, over £41 million worth of social value outcomes would be destroyed. The budget proposals go against its recommendations, which include ‘increasing access to services’.
Suffolk’s libraries have had funding threats before. In 2011, 29 libraries across the county faced permanent closure. It came after SCC voted to cut £42.5m from that year’s budget because of a drop in government funding. They were saved following huge public pressure and a restructure in how they are run.
This article has been updated to add a response from Cllr Bennett.
This article is based on a press release from the Suffolk Green, Lib Dem & Independent Group – Elected Opposition at Suffolk County Council