After feelings ran high at a town meeting over the future of the library and children’s centres, there were calls for a legal challenge to government cuts in Lancashire.
Councillors said they would back a judicial review if controversial plans to turn Morecambe Library into a self-service ‘satellite library’ and sell off Poulton, Balmoral and Heysham children’s centres go ahead.
The idea was suggested by resident Michael Page who spoke out at the packed meeting held on Thursday night at the War Memorial Hall in Morecambe.
“These cuts are completely unacceptable – there are councils around the country who are making legal challenges through the courts to the cuts being forced on them by central government,” said Mr Page.
County Councillor Tony Jones, a Conservative representing Morecambe North, replied: “If there is an unfair allocation of money across the country, if Conservative councils are getting more money and Lancashire is getting less, then I would support a judicial review.”
His Labour colleague County Councillor Darren Clifford said: “If people aren’t listening maybe you do have to go to court over it” and Coun John Bates, a Morecambe town councillor, also said a judicial review was a good idea.
Rev Mike Peatman of Morecambe Parish Church earlier asked: “Is the north getting a fair deal?”
In June, Nottinghamshire, Richmond, Shropshire and Liverpool councils lodged a judicial review against health secretary Jeremy Hunt, arguing austerity measures had created “an unacceptable risk of illegality” by leaving councils without enough money to meet their statutory duties to vulnerable people.
Morecambe Town Council called Thursday’s town meeting to ask for residents’ views.
This came after public outrage over the Lancashire County Council proposals which could see staff lose their jobs, vital services lost from the library and 300 families who use the children’s centres uncertain over nursery places.
The Labour-run county council is conducting a countywide review of its buildings because they need to save £200m by 2021.
Morecambe clergyman Rev Peter Brown hit out at the library and children’s centre plans.
Rev Brown, of the Gym Church on Clarence Street, said: “I’m very very angry on behalf of this community.
“This review is botched. Those who are leaders are not honouring their responsibilities to the people.
“We need to speak out as a community. We need to hold our leaders responsible.”
Co Coun Jones, who opposes the plans, said: “There is not a problem with funding for children’s centres. They are increasing the funding. The problem is location.
“The county wants to get out of the Poulton, Balmoral Road and Heysham centres to reduce their expenditure on the buildings. But they haven’t thought through the provision for 0-5 year olds.
“There is an enormous play area in Poulton Children’s Centre. You can’t put that in Morecambe Library, it’s inconceivable. You can’t look after 0-5 year olds in that building.
“If it’s possible for groups to come together to put a bid in to run Poulton Children’s Centre, that could possibly work.
“The strongest argument that has been put forward is that the library is the only county council premises open to the public in Morecambe. It has substantial community use because the adult education provision in Morecambe is gone so this is where people gravitate to for all sorts of very good reasons. To turf out these groups who are so important is a non-starter.”
Many other residents and councillors also spoke out against the proposals.
Paul Batty of Total Tots nursery based at Balmoral Children’s Centre, said: “The centres will be closed. There is a massive shortfall of nursery places in this area. There is no joined-up thinking here.”
Coun Josh Brandwood, a Labour Morecambe town councillor, said: “On a daily basis I see people in Morecambe Library using the facility to search for jobs.
“Someone unemployed or with little income may not be able to afford travel expenses to other locations which is unfair and unacceptable.”
Jan Gomez, director of a training company which runs classes at Morecambe Library, praised the library staff, calling them “20% librarians and 80% social workers”.
Tony Vettese, who runs the Old Pier Bookshop on Marine Road, said: “No-one is speaking up for the books and the kids in there. If we lose the library and the books we are losing education for young children.”
Mr Vettese also suggested that underused office space in Preston could be sold off instead of library and children’s centre buildings.
Rev Mike Peatman also spoke up for Poulton Children’s Centre, saying the service was vital because Poulton is in the top 5% of most deprived areas in the country.
A resident, Moira Dyson, asked: “Why isn’t Westgate Children’s Centre being closed? What’s so special about Westgate? There are more deprived people in Heysham and Poulton than in Westgate.”
Co Coun Darren Clifford replied: “Westgate has Branksome and Langridge estates which are also deprived. I’m not going to start setting one community against another.”
Another resident, Elizabeth Fitton, asked: “Have we had any support or comment from our MP?”
The Visitor understands that David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, has written to Lancashire County Council objecting to the plans as part of the current public consultation.
A petition outside Bodycare in the Arndale Centre to keep the status quo at the library has gained more than 1,000 signatures so far.
Morecambe town councillor John Bates said the public needed to keep the pressure on if they want to save the library and children’s centre services.
“In all of Lancashire there will be similar meetings happening and it’s a sad fact of politics that the people who shout loudest get what they want,” said Coun Bates.
“Filling in the consultation document alone won’t do it. We want a properly staffed library. If MPs get up to 40 letters from their constituents they start to worry because they know it’s an important issue. Don’t just complain, write letters then send them in.”
A resident asked how much money Lancashire County Council has in reserves. Co Coun Jones replied the county council has £314m in capital reserves, but Co Coun Clifford said much of this is earmarked to guard against further cuts to come.
Co Coun Clifford said there would be “no guarantees” the meeting would lead to a county council U-turn but said he hoped the library and children’s centres could be saved.
“With one more nudge, maybe we can save the whole thing,” he said.
“But we have to set a legal budget.”
David Croxall, clerk to Morecambe Town Council, also read out a series of answers from Lancashire County Council to questions he had asked.
The county council told him Morecambe Library will not be completely unstaffed in future because there will be other Lancashire County Council workers in the building, the number of computers available in the library in future is yet to be decided, and that community groups and youth services could continue to use the building supported by any relocated staff.
But Mr Croxall said: “In none of these answers has the county said how it would work and how many staff would be there. I’m still a little bit in the dark.”
After the town meeting, Morecambe Town Council met to decide their response to Lancashire County Council.
The full town council resolution was:
Morecambe Town Council believes that all children’s centres in Morecambe and Heysham should be retained and operated by the county council as they currently operate, on the basis that these are necessary front line and statutory services, particularly as Morecambe and Heysham have high levels of deprivation. The town council recognises that the county council has to make reductions in expenditure, however, it would request that alternative options be investigated which did not impact on front line and statutory services such as children’s centres and libraries.
Morecambe Town Council believes that Morecambe Library provides an essential service to the local community and as the only county council property open to the public in Morecambe must be retained to ensure the current level of community services and provision currently provided would be retained in Morecambe.
That in accordance with the Localism Act 2011, the town council submits a Community Expression of Interest to Lancashire County Council in respect of both Poulton Children’s Centre and Morecambe Library.
In addition the town council requests a reasonable amount of time must be allowed for the town council to undertake their own feasibility study and any decisions on change of use or closure of the library and Poulton Children’s Centre be deferred until that study has been completed.
The councillors also agreed to put several residents’ views raised at the meeting to the county council.
Mr Croxall thanked residents and members of the public who attended the town meeting.
The public consultation on the future of Morecambe Library and children’s centres runs until August 14.
You can find hard copies of the document at local libraries and children’s centres, and on line at www.lancashire.gov.uk .