UNISON has branded the shake-up as “library closure by stealth” and accused Southend Council of blackmailing communities.

The union, which represents many of the 29 library staff who could be affected by the proposed changes, claims the authority has no back-up plan to keep branch libraries open if volunteers fail to come forward, effectively forcing people who want to keep the service to run it for free.

Peter Passingham, 31, assistant secretary for the Southend Unison’s local government branch and a library assistant at Southend Central Library, said: “It will have a huge impact on local communities.

“We say putting branches over to communities is blackmailing communities. It’s saying: ‘If you want this, you have to run it.’ “In other areas of the country where this has come in, the volunteers who run the libraries would prefer to have kept the service as it is, with paid, trained staff, but they didn’t want to lose the service so stepped in.

“It’s closure by stealth. There is no provision if communities don’t take up the running of the libraries.”

Unison is urging members of the public to contact the council as part of a three-month consultation on the proposals, demanding paid staff in all branches.

It will also support people in setting up campaigns to keep branches open, with petitions and event.

To contact Unison call 01702 215980 or email unison@southend.gov.uk.