LIBRARIES in Southend will be improved and should remain open - if volunteers step in to help manage them.

Southend Council needs to slash £378,000 from their budget budget by March 2016, but bosses believe branch libraries can remain open.

Derek Jarvis, Tory councillor responsible for libraries, head of culture, Nick Harris and library services manager Simon May, spoke out to put across “the true picture” of their plans.

Westcliff, Southchurch, Thorpedene, Friars, Leigh and Kent Elms libraries are facing changes as part of the budget cuts.

Campaigns have been launched amid fears some libraries could face the axe.

But the council is at pains to stress there are no closure plans, as long as the public or community groups do their bit to keep some of them open.

Mr Jarvis said: “I can understand why people want to start campaigns against what they’re hearing other people say about our consultation but it’s not true that we’re going to close them.”

He said the town’s libraries had not been reviewed since 1998 and there had been a 12 per cent reduction in libraries in the past decade.

He added: “I don’t need to tell you how much has changed since then in terms of e-books and everything else.”

The council is launching a second consultation later this month on ways it can save £378,000 before March 2016 – and this will then form the basis of its plans for the next 15 years.

Mr Harris said: “We recognise the library is a good service and it’s a service we want to continue.”

Plans for improvement include increasing the number of books available by 25 per cent, as well as establishing a fully fledged 24-hour “virtual” library service for downloading e-books and renewals.

Wifi will also be rolled out in the libraries run by the council.

The “amalgamation” of Thorpedene and Friars libraries will improve them, the council says, as the two existing buildings are not fit for purpose and are close to each other anyway.

“There’s no plan to close Leigh or Kent Elms libraries, it’s about how they operate,” Mr Harris claimed.

While true there will be one “hub” library in the east of Southend and another in the west - either at Leigh or Kent Elms - the council hopes the community will step in to run the other western library – possibly in a different building – thereby keeping both open.

The council will provide support for the community groups, but they will have to staff them themselves.

Groups including the Westcliff Community Association have already expressed an interest in running their local library, Mr Jarvis said.

He added, regarding of one of the bodies involved in organising campaigns against the changes: “Leigh Town Council is already running the community centre there and they were sympathetic to the idea of a community library during the first consultation.”

But what if, after the consultation has ended, the council decides to let community groups run libraries but not enough people step forward to do so?

Simon May, library services manager, said: “I think we’d have to go away and think again.”

Mr Harris added: “In some areas if people don’t want to safeguard them it will be very difficult, it would perhaps suggest that they don’t want their libraries as much as we thought.”

And what if after a group takes over a library it isn’t running it effectively, what measures would be in place to keep it viable for residents? And could the council take them back?

“I think this is getting a bit ahead of ourselves, this is talking about 2015-16, we have plenty of time to revisit this subject,” Mr Jarvis said A three-month review on the plans is set to start this month.

Southend Council’s cabinet will decide on the preferred option in July, which will be implemented by the end of the year.

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