Plans to strip back Bexley's library services have been approved by the council as it battles a financial black hole in its budget.

Among the proposals approved are reduced opening times, a closed-day once a week, reduced staff, fewer events, less funding for community libraries and greater reliance on self-service.

The move comes as Bexley Council battles with a major financial black hole in its budget, currently projected as £1.4m, increasing to more than £13 by 2024/25.

The latest steps in the annual budget-making process were approved as a council meeting last night (January 25).

The revised model for Bexley's library services, which follows a full public consultation, will provide a £570,000 annual saving to the local authority.

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"There is still a lot of work to do, but the budget that is taking shape will help us support local people and continue to keep them safe." said council leader Teresa O’Neill OBE.

“Despite the scale of the challenge and the uncertainty we all face, we will continue to invest to improve the lives of Bexley residents.”

Cllr David Leaf, Cabinet Member for Finance, added that they were "continuing to focus on reducing our costs to protect frontline services and deliver a balanced budget.

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“The fact that we are on track to do this in such difficult circumstances is the result of a huge amount of work by everybody involved. The result will be a budget that sees us continuing to invest in the borough through sound financial management.”

The library changes are expected to take place from May 1, 2021, and could include a reduction in opening hours, including the end of evening openings and the closure of the Central Library on Sundays, all saving money and wages.

Greater use of self-service at libraries, fewer events run by the Libraries Team and appointment-only services are all being considered, all of which was included in a recent public consultation.

At the recent meeting, cabinet members heard that the continuing impact of the pandemic means there is increasing uncertainty and risk around the Council’s Medium Term Financial Strategy. They were told that this is likely to continue into the spring when the budget and next year’s Council Tax will be agreed.

Uncertainty over local government funding continues to affect the Council’s ability to plan ahead, but the Cabinet was told that the Government’s latest provisional financial settlement for councils was positive.

It included a 4.5% increase on the assumption that all councils increase their Council Tax by the maximum allowed without a referendum of local residents.

Two new libraries are also planned for the borough - One in Thamesmead is currently being built in partnership with Peabody, and work on the second in Sidcup started this week.

The current library in Sidcup will move to the new High Street location, the site of an old Blockbuster, and will also be home to a new community cinema.

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Since 2016, Bexley has had six council-managed libraries and six community-managed libraries, but under the plans, funding supplied to the latter would be reduced by 20%.

The council said that over the past few years, the number of people borrowing books has fallen and online services have become increasingly more popular, so the plans will also aim to meet the changing needs of residents.

The main goal of the plans, however, is to make the required savings to plug a significant financial gap in the council's budget.

The new model would result in a part year saving of £0.42m in 2021/22, and £0.57m annually in future years.

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Around £350k of this would come from funds saved from frontline staff due to the reduced opening times and self-service, plus up to £200k saved by reducing community managed library grants.

Cabinet Member for Places, Cllr Peter Craske said: "The number of people who completed our survey show us what we already know – that residents really value Bexley’s brilliant libraries.

"I would like to thank everyone who took part. Like other local authorities we are facing serious financial difficulties.

"Because of that we have to make some difficult decisions. We have taken the feedback from the survey and developed a new model that we hope will work for everyone.

"We’ve especially heard some strong views against relying on self-service and we want to make sure that our great staff are available most of the time to help.

"It is also important to remember that, while they are part of our community, the library buildings are only part of the service.

"So much of what they offer is now online and available 24/7 to library members. The online service has gone from strength to strength over the past few months, providing a vital lifeline for all ages.”

The Council’s final budget proposal will be considered at the Cabinet meeting on 22 February and will be approved by the full Council at its meeting on 3 March.