I am writing as chair of the Friends of Great Torrington Library to express our dismay at the recent decision by Devon County Council to decommission the four mobile libraries in Devon.

As this decision has been called in for further scrutiny it gives us the opportunity to inform all stakeholders of the real value of the mobile library service and the flawed decision-making of the county council.

Firstly the figures that the council used were not up to date as they were comparing numbers from a period when there were eight vans to the current position of four vans, thus cutting the rota from two weekly to four weekly visits. In addition the consultation period was flawed and possible illegal.  The usage of the libraries fell dramatically during the pandemic but recent figures for 2022 show a remarkable recovery. I have been given figures by Libraries Unlimited which I would be happy to show you. 

It should also be taken into account that there were a number of times when vehicles were off the road for maintenance issues so not all planned visits could be undertaken.

There is also some doubt about the cost of prospective replacements which is quoted at £800,000 for the four vans. This seems excessive but I am surprised that a large organisation like Devon County Council does not have a financial system that allows for replacement of major capital items. Did they properly look at alternatives such as leasing,  sponsorship etc?   In addition do they have proper insurance cover in place, because when the mobile library in Torrington was destroyed by fire the amount of insurance accepted by the council was derisory.

The council is suggesting ‘community libraries’ as a viable alternative to the mobile libraries ­– I don’t think this has been thought through. There are a number of  issues which would have to be considered further when implementing such a policy. These include staffing, access, security, insurance, responsibility, funding and access to other library resources for requests. The whole system would rely on volunteers and these are in short supply.

 The amount suggested to cover the cost of the transition for the whole of the county is £25,000 — a  minuscule amount.  I would also emphasise that the choice of books under any such arrangement would be limited, contrary to what the councillors are saying.  The current mobile service has a good range of books and also the ability to request additional books.

The council refers to the home library service and the good friends services as a potential replacement.  However these are volunteer driven and indeed many people are not aware of them. However the people receiving books would not have their own choice of books and little or no social interaction. 

The council has a statutory obligation to provide a library service to the whole community.  By withdrawing the Mobile Library Service it is debatable whether they would be fulfilling this obligation.  The people most disadvantaged by this act would be this in most need. The people reached by the mobile libraries are the most vulnerable, the very young and the elderly.  Among the latter are many who do not have access to the internet for digital library services or public transport to reach traditional services.  Young mothers too who want to encourage their children to read are also similarly disadvantaged.  This is inequality of opportunities in action.  The potential social impact is incalculable. 

The petition that has been started online has already obtained over 3,300 signatures and paper petitions have been distributed throughout the county and we already have several hundred names. 

One of the things that has come to light during this process is the number of people who didn’t realise that there was a mobile library coming to their area and have signed up to join it.  More publicity would obviously help increase the users.  Over the next few years a great many more houses are being built, not always near a library so the mobile service will be needed more not less.  To inform everyone better perhaps information could be included in the council tax bills as with the police and other services.

Joy Morrison Chair, Friends of Great Torrington Library