Following the unsuccessful “save the library” challenge against Brent Council in 2011, comes another High Court judgment in judicial review proceedings involving a Council’s decision to achieve spending cuts by reducing its library provision. This time it was Lincolnshire County Council (“the Council”) and this time a court has decided that a decision to dramatically reduce the number of funded libraries was flawed.
Following a review of its library services the Council had found that 82% of its local population were not active book borrowers, and book stock issued in the county in the last 10 years had dropped from 5 million to under 3 million. As a result the council proposed that 10 of its current 45 libraries should remain open for 50 hours a week and 5 for 25 hours a week. Local communities would then be given the opportunity to take over the remaining libraries or create their own, with professional support from the council.
In the face of public opposition to the proposals, the Council agreed to publish a response to questions raised by the pressure group Save Lincolnshire Libraries (“SLL”) in relation to the consultation process. In that response, the Council confirmed that a decision to reduce the Council’s library budget by £2million had already been agreed by the Council months before. Because of that, whether or not to change the library service was not an option, it was clear the Council had to save £2million - the question was ‘how’.
Grounds of challenge
One local resident together with the support of the SLL challenged the proposed cuts on four specific grounds: (1) that the 13 week consultation was unlawful due to the fact that a pre-determined decision had already been made. (2)It was also argued that the Council failed to ensure that groups with protected characteristics (as defined by the Equality Act, for example those with a disability) were not disproportionately affected by the proposal. (3) There was also concern that the Council had failed to properly consider a bid from the not-for-profit Greenwich Leisure Limited to run the library service; and (4) that if the cuts went ahead, the Council wouldn’t provide a comprehensive and efficient library service – something it has a statutory duty to do.
Mr Justice Collins of the High Court found no evidence that the Council hadn’t complied with its statutory obligations including the obligations imposed by the Equality Act. However, the Court ruled that the Council’s decision making process was flawed, as the consultation process itself was flawed and the Council erred by not taking into account fully Greenwich Leisure Limited’s (“Greenwich”) proposal. This proposal was considered relevant as Greenwich was already running library services for two London boroughs, Greenwich and Woolwich.
The Council has publicly expressed its disappointment at the Court’s ruling but accepted that, as a result of the Court’s decision the Council would now need to undertake further consultation and re-examine the Greenwich proposal. It has expressed concern that the Greenwich proposal could mean that the Council might have to run aprocurement process to determine which organisation library services would be outsourced, and this would not preclude a commercial organisation being selected. This presumably was not an intended consequence of the consultation process.
This judgement reinforces the principle that the Court will not hesitate to intervene if it considers that a public consultation process is flawed or that relevant information has not been considered properly, prior to a final decision being made. It is worth highlighting, that if the Council correct the flaws of its earlier consultation process and demonstrates that it has taken the Greenwich proposal into account, it would be entitled to make the same decision as before. However, in light of public opposition, the Council may consider that an alternative proposal may be more successful.