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14 August 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 11:56am

Has a little girl from Northamptonshire just ended local government cuts?

After a child and her family challenged their council, the High Court has ruled its decision to close 21 of the county’s 36 libraries unlawful.

By Anoosh Chakelian

A young child and her family have successfully challenged bankrupt Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to close 21 of the county’s 36 libraries.

The High Court has ruled the council’s library cuts unlawful. The judge said it failed to consider whether it would operate a comprehensive and efficient library service after the closures. This meant a failure to comply with its statutory duties as a council.

After being instructed by a local young girl with the help of her mother (they remain anonymous), Irwin Mitchell solicitors issued proceedings for a judicial review of the council’s decision in March. It was the council’s effective bankruptcy – which made national headlines in February – that led to its decision to close the threatened libraries.

Northamptonshire County Council failed to properly consider the outcome of a public consultation on its libraries’ future, failed to account for how much money it would lose to the Department for Education if the children’s centres based in the libraries also closed, and failed to carry out its duties under the Equality Act to consider the impact on vulnerable people, according to the court.

When I visited the north-west Northamptonshire town of Desborough in May, I heard how the community – in particular pensioners, people with disabilities, and low-income families – would have struggled without Desborough Library, one of the libraries due for closure.

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Speaking to families in the same boat as the young girl who brought this case to court, it was clear that people relied on the library’s services, as well as its children’s centre, to live their lives. If Desborough’s children’s centre had disappeared along with its library (something the council hadn’t considered), that would have cost the council – and therefore the council taxpayers – over £300,000.

Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to close 21 libraries came shortly after it was told in February that it would fail to set a lawful budget if it didn’t make more savings. This has led to huge cuts to services, stripping its provisions back to a “core offer”, merely aiming to “fulfil” its legal “duties”, according to council leader Matt Golby earlier this month.

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“I appreciate the real pressure the Cabinet and the defendant’s officers were operating under at the time,” said Mrs Justice Yip. “However, this did not relieve the defendant of the need to act lawfully.”

Now a legal challenge has successfully reversed a council’s decision to cut, does this mean the same can be done to combat cuts to services across the country – even when councils are on the brink, like Northamptonshire, of failing their legal obligation to deliver a balanced budget?

“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a case which says, to all other councils, you can therefore no longer cut again,” says Caroline Barrett, the lawyer representing the family.

“The courts will only intervene if it’s unlawful… But it is unfortunately a common theme of our time that all councils are under financial pressure and considering ways to strip back and cut services down. Lots of councils will make those decisions in a rational and lawful manner, but some won’t. And those councils will be vulnerable to legal challenge.”

City and county councils across the UK face huge funding gaps, mainly because of the lack of funding from central government (councils have lost 49 per cent of real-term funding from central government since austerity began in 2010).

This context makes it likely that others, like East Sussex County Council, will follow Northamptonshire in cutting back to the bare minimum of services over the next few years – and will be vulnerable to legal challenges.

The more they act out of financial necessity, the more likely it is that they will fail to prioritise other obligations (like protecting services for vulnerable people).

Over the last two years, there has been a rise in local people banding together on social media, in campaign groups, and starting crowdfunders to fight cuts to services, according to Barrett. “There’s a real groundswell movement where people do now want to challenge the things affecting them… to know what their legal rights are and to feel empowered to stand up for their local services.”

She particularly sees this pattern in campaigning against cuts to services for vulnerable residents – like homeless people, adults with disabilities and vulnerable children. And this is coupled with a rise in such cases reaching the courts, as councils have failed to protect those budgets.

“It’s a depressing trend that more of these cuts cases are happening,” says Barrett.

The good news is that local campaigners will be emboldened by today’s High Court ruling – and potential library closures across the country could be halted in future.

“[The High Court ruling] sends a clear message that financial pressures do not release local authorities from their statutory duty to provide public libraries,” says Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP, the library and information association. “[However]… It’s essential that Northamptonshire County Council receive the emergency support needed, and that a fair funding settlement for all local authorities is reached as a matter of urgency.”