The High Court in London yesterday ruled that a decision by Brent LBC to close half of its public libraries was lawful.  (Bailey v London Borough of Brent [2011] EWHC 2572).

The decision will be of great interest to Local Authorities facing campaigns against the closure of libraries, as well as cuts to services more generally. The lengthy judgment gives a detailed analysis of the adequacy of the consultation and decision making processes. The Council had conducted an extensive consultation process lasting 3 months and provided detailed reports which addressed the relevant issues. The Court was satisfied that account had been taken of the views of consultees, that it was acceptable to consult on a preferred option provided the Council kept an open mind and that it was appropriate to take account of budget pressures. The detail of the case will be of interest to all those undertaking a consultation process leading to changes in service delivery.

In April this year, in the face of fierce opposition and several alternative proposals put forward by interested community groups, Brent LBC took the decision to close half of its 12 public libraries in an effort to realise £1m per year in cost savings.  Since then, campaign group “Brent Save Our Six (SOS) Libraries”, supported by high profile campaigners such as the musician Nick Cave, playwright Alan Bennett, and pop groups Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys, have campaigned to have the decision overturned.

Brent SOS Libraries’ campaign culminated in a legal challenge, in which it alleged that in reaching the decision to close the libraries, Brent LBC acted unlawfully by:

  • closing its mind to alternatives to closure (unlawfully fettering its discretion);
  • unlawfully failing to consult / carrying out an inadequate consultation;
  • unfairly and irrationally failing to assess community needs and the impact closure would have on certain sections of the community; and
  • misunderstood / misdirected itself as to the nature of its duty to provide a library service.

Although the ruling rejected these arguments and upheld Brent LBC’s decision to close the libraries, against a backdrop of shrinking budgets and increasing demands on social care, it is clear that similar decisions to those highlighted in this case will be faced by Local Authorities throughout the country. As recently as Tuesday, Waltham Forest Council in East London took the decision to close two libraries in the face of furious protestors.  The decision formed part of plans to make budget savings of £65m over four years.

The ruling serves to highlight the importance of a meaningful consultation as part of a robust decision-making process when dealing with service cuts or changes  necessitated by the need to balance budgets in times of decreasing funding.