Council ends library staff recruitment freeze

A recruitment freeze that has forced temporary short-notice closures of  libraries in Henleaze and Westbury and across the city has been lifted.

The city council’s Labour administration says it has found the cash to end a ban on casual staff to cover absences through sickness and annual leave, which has been in place since November.

But branches continue to shut their doors at times while the search for new employees begins, prompting renewed criticism from opposition councillors.

There were more than 300 full or part-day closures over two months, affecting 26 of Bristol’s 27 libraries at least once.

A motion tabled by Cllr Tim Kent (Lib Dem, Hengrove & Whitchurch Park) to full council urging Labour mayor Marvin Rees to keep them open received unanimous cross-party support.

The meeting heard that branches had been closed for a fifth of their scheduled opening times, while Labour said ending the recruitment freeze would cost £300,000 and require cuts elsewhere.

But the ruling group now says it has allocated the money.

Cllr Kent told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he welcomed the move but feared it would take time to turn the situation around.

He said: “A few weeks ago every councillor, and the mayor, voted to support the motion calling for the vacancy management to end and for libraries to be fully staffed and opened. 

“But even more have closed and until now there appears to have been no action to reverse this policy which is undermining the branch library network.

“Libraries provide safe and warm spaces where people can access books and the internet.

“They are free social hubs. “Existing library staff are really feeling the strain of this policy. I fear it is causing such damage to the library network that it will not recover.  I hope the mayor will now listen to council and stop the library closures.”

Cllr Richard Eddy (Conservative, Bishopsworth) said: “Whilst I welcome any, very belated recognition that normal funding for staff vacancies will be resumed in the libraries service, I am appalled that Bristolians have had to endure Third World standards of library provision.

“Bristol’s branch libraries deserve more than to be treated as a political Cinderella service.”

The worst day for temporary closures was on Saturday, January 20, when 10 branches – more than a third – were shut.

Eight had to close for at least part of the day on Wednesday, January 31.

A Bristol Labour group spokesperson said: “It’s beyond belief to hear the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats joining forces to complain about the effects of government austerity, which their parties forced on Bristol.

“The city is not immune to their governments’ spending cuts. As a result, some libraries have been short on staff, leading to temporary closures – often for part-days or during lunch hours.

“Whilst a fifth of libraries across the UK have closed permanently, Mayor Rees’ Labour administration has bucked the trend and prevented any permanent closures in Bristol.

“Labour’s proud to have protected and invested in Bristol’s libraries. We have a long-term plan to invest in technology to improve accessibility, extend opening hours and deliver a library service fit for the future.

“However, we have also allocated the necessary funding to lift the council’s temporary recruitment freeze for libraries effective immediately – the recruitment process for additional staff will be under way as soon as possible.”