SOUTHEND Council is preparing to hand over the keys for two of its libraries to volunteers who will be running them.

Westcliff and Southchurch libraries are set to become “community libraries”, run by volunteers rather than fullytrained professional librarians, over the course of the next two years.

It came after senior councillors agreed a controversial shake-up, designed to reshape the borough’s library service for the next 15 years.

Volunteers will also be replacing some paid staff at Leigh and Kent Elms libraries, although some librarians will be retained to run the two libraries in the west of the borough.

Tory councillor Derek Jarvis claims the changes are necessary to keep libraries open as the council struggles to balance its books in the face of a £35million drop in its budget over the next three years. The changes, which also include the closure of Friars and Thorpedene libraries in Shoebury, a new library to replace them in Delaware Road, and the opening of the £27million Forum Southend library in the town centre, will save the authority £378,000 a year from a controllable budget of £2.5million for the next three years.

But opponents fear too few people will step forward, degrading the service and leading to the closure of Westcliff or Southchurch libraries.

Other authorities around the country have already switched to community libraries over the past few years.

The Arts Council says there are already more than 425 community libraries in England – around 12 per cent of all libraries.

More than 120 respondents to a public consultation on the plan said they would volunteer at a community library in Southend, with another 145 saying they might.

Southend Council will begin working with volunteers and community groups next year and hopes to have the community libraries up and running by 2016.