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Tuesday, 16 September 2014

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Libraries continue to thrive under community control

AT the back end of 2009, Northumberland County Council revealed controversial proposals to cut key services to towns and villages.

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Heddon-on-the-Wall Parish Council chairman Ian Armstrong (right) with volunteers in the village library.

As the authority aimed to make savings of a whopping £30m, it announced many services it had previously run were to be either wrapped up for good, or reduced significantly.

There was widespread anger from the public when it learned that elderly care homes and tourist information centres were in line for the axe.

But the decision which provoked the most uproar was the proposal by county to make swingeing cuts to the county’s libraries.

Yet the people of Tynedale were not prepared to take the news lying down and their determination to keep their libraries has reaped rewards.

Both Heddon-on-the-Wall and Haydon Bridge were earmarked to have their libraries taken away, but in stepped community spirited volunteers to save the day.

A team of more than 20 volunteers expressed a desire to help out at Haydon Bridge, and they have played a huge part in making the renovated, community-run The Bridge facility a massive hit with locals.

Similarly in Heddon, members of the public threw their weight behind the parish council’s project to prevent their library going under.

Knowing they needed to come up with an innovative idea, the community went away to draw up plans which would make the facility self-sufficient.

What they came up with was a recipe which has proved a runaway success, the proof in the pudding as it is still going strong.

The parish council was successful in getting large amounts of money together to renovate the building and split it into two sections – one to house the library service and the other space to be rented out as a business centre.

Four offices were created as a result, and the initiative has been popular with local business people as the space is often in high demand.

The money collected through the rent provides vital funds for the upkeep of the building, ensuring the well-used library can continue to thrive.

With 24 people volunteering their time to keep the service going, the facility looks to have a long-term future.

Heddon-on-the-Wall Parish Council chairman, Coun. Ian Armstrong, said: “When we heard we were one of the 12 on the original hitlist, we didn’t think very much of that. We chased the county council hard but it had clearly made its mind up.

“I spoke to the county to ask if we could have the building on a 25-year lease on a peppercorn rent. And it agreed!

“What we have ended up with is a building we are very proud of and we needed to make it interactive for people to come in and rent the place.”

Coun. Armstrong added: “There aren’t any reasons why villages should not have a library. They can be a social thing for a lot of people, but local people need to act or they will lose services.

“We feel we are doing better than when the county council ran it and the secret to our success is to get a good team of volunteers who all know each other and are prepared to work hard.”

Alternative measures to save libraries have been rolled out elsewhere across Tynedale.

As part of a £50,000 project, Corbridge Library combined with the village tourist information centre to provide two key services under one roof.

With one full-time member of staff at the head, the service relies on the help of volunteers to make the facility the success it is.

Over in Bellingham, members of the town hall committee worked hard in securing the future of the village library – helping to save the town hall in the process.

In its previous location in Fountain Cottage, the book-borrowing facility had been living on borrowed time and it was only a matter of time before it closed.

Because it could only be accessed by a flight of stairs, it did not meet essential disabled access requirements while the building required major repair work.

Yet the volunteers on the hall committee rolled up their sleeves to persuade the county that the library was worth keeping – but in a different location.

The group secured significant funding to transform two under-used rooms on the ground floor of the hall into a library and computer space, complete with disabled access.

Their tireless work to find the space paid off as it convinced the county council that the library was in demand. The new look library is still staffed and maintained by the county council.

Chairman of the town hall, Edwin Wilkinson, said: “It didn’t look very hopeful for the library before we started but, because of the hard work of the committee, the council set it up again as it knew we were doing it for the community.

“I think the library has gone from strength-to-strength, and there is always people in using the facility.

“It is a vital service and, without the rent money from it, we just wouldn’t be able to heat the hall and that would result in it being used less and less.

“Now, the building is thriving, getting aired and the future looks bright for both the hall and the library.”

The county council praised the work of the communities in such schemes, saying they would not work without the good work of volunteers.

With the county providing the books, computers and training support, Community Access Libraries throughout were thriving.

Events and promotions were organised by the county council at the libraries, with the Summer Reading Challenge for children this year enjoying the highest participation figures since the introduction of the scheme 14 years ago.

A spokesman said: “The care and commitment of these volunteers have enabled the libraries to continue to be at the hub of our communities.”

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