Mobile libraries dwindle as services taken off the road
The West Midlands has just 11 mobile libraries open after services were slashed over the last decade.
New figures show that the region had 41 mobile libraries in 2010, including services across the Black Country and Staffordshire.
But nearly three quarters of them have now gone, prompting Labour deputy leader Tom Watson to hit out at Tory austerity for landing a “terrible blow” on communities in the West Midlands.
Conservatives have hit back, saying that blaming austerity was “an easy way out” that stifled debate on the issue.
Mobile libraries are vans stacked with books that travel between neighbourhoods on specified routes, allowing people to take out books for a set period of time.
The data from the House of Commons Library also show a huge fall in the number of services available in England. In 2010 there were 385 mobile libraries operating for 10 or more hours a week.
The figure is now 111, a drop of 71 per cent.
Dozens of static branch libraries have closed across the West Midlands in recent years, with Walsall losing nine. Only Sandwell – which has one mobile library – has managed to keep all 18 of its branches open.
Earlier this year it emerged that hundreds of full time library staff across the region had been laid off, prompting services to rely on volunteers.
West Bromwich East MP Mr Watson, the Shadow Culture Secretary, said: “The loss of mobile libraries is terrible blow for communities here in the West Midlands and across the country.
“Mobile libraries are vital services that offer books, resources, comfort, and company to people who may not be able to reach a library branch.
“Sandwell Council has done very well in recent years to maintain local library services given almost a decade of Tory austerity has slashed local authority funding, and our public library service elsewhere in the country is suffering the consequences.
“It is deeply troubling that in England, little over a hundred mobile libraries remain.
“This Government should put an end to the austerity that is decimating our public services and leaving our communities poorer.”
Paul Singh, a Tory councillor in Wolverhampton’s Penn ward, said: “Labour likes to blame everything on austerity, but that is an easy way out that takes the attention away from the issue itself.
“Many councils saw a marked decline in the use of mobile services and made decisions accordingly. While funding may well play a part, we need to speak to those who use mobile services and see if the demand is there.”
The majority of West Midlands councils no longer operate mobile libraries, which can cost more than £100,000 a year to run, although some have maintained services.
Sandwell had two vehicles in operation until April 2013, when the service was scaled back to one to save £80,000.
Walsall’s mobile library service has been operating since 1982, and visits more than 40 sites across the borough, each week.
Staffordshire also runs mobile services, with each mobile library carrying around 3,500 items of stock including books for children and adults, audio books, local history and information.
Elsewhere across the region, Solihull’s mobile library service was axed this year, with council bosses saying it was used by fewer than 300 people in 2017-18.
Last year, spending by local authorities on public libraries fell by £30 million, with the service losing 712 full time staff, as well as a net loss of 127 service points in 2017-18.
Each year more than 100 of them close down for good, with the latest figures showing a fall in the national from £1bn in 2010 to £741m last year.
The issue sparked a Commons debate last month, which saw MPs calling on councils to explore alternative models of delivery such as trust or community-run libraries.
The Local Government Association says that libraries werte “increasingly becoming community hubs, bringing people together and giving them access to a greater breadth of services and support”.
This has included initiatives supporting public health and helping people into work, the LGA added.