I learned about the current campaign to save Devon’s mobile libraries during Sir Geoffrey Cox MP’s “village surgery” in the Baxter Hall at Petrockstowe last week. Since then a reader of the West Devon Free Press has written in support of the campaign. The time seemed right to rather belatedly enquire about the rationale behind the campaign. Councillor Cheryl Cottle-Hunkin, who is Lead member for Culture and Community Engagement and Chair of External Overview and Scrutiny at Torridge District Council has provided some answers:
1. How do you feel about the potential closure of the mobile libraries?
It’s truly heartbreaking. I think it comes down to equality- everyone should have equal access to books, and through the act of taking away the mobile library service, people in rural areas are effectively being made second class citizens. This is the last remaining service for people in many parts of rural Devon and now they’re told this might be taken away from them too. People are in tears over it. It’s hugely important to thousands of people and it affects the whole of the county. It’s not just about the books, it’s intergenerational, it’s about being part of a community, and it’s about allowing people in rural areas to be independent and supporting the most vulnerable in our society. Decisions are being made in the city (Exeter) with a focus on council finances and without due consideration of the impacts and the effect it will have on people, and that is wrong.
The response to the campaign however has been amazing! The online petition has reached more than 6000 signatures and the list of celebrities and authors continues to grow with Carol Vorderman the most recent to join the campaign. Please do share a link to the online petition: www.change.org/SaveOurMobileLibrary
Many people across Devon have been contacting me and have been collecting handwritten signatures on paper petitions within their local communities. Devon author Liz Shakespeare has collected more than 400 handwritten signatures alone! So combined with the online petition we are actually closer to 7000.
2. Why are mobile libraries valuable in 2023, particularly in rural areas?
There has actually been a very recent university study on the value of libraries. They found that England’s libraries generate the equivalent of £3.4bn, and economists found the mobile libraries in Cambridgeshire produce over £300,000 of value each year for its users.
Here in Torridge (I’m a Torridge District Councillor in Devon) I’m very aware of the rural deprivation we experience. We have the 3rd lowest workplace earnings in the UK (out of 370), and the second lowest adult social mobility rate in England. We also have the 3rd highest population on universal credit across all of the southwest councils. With the cost of living crisis, people are struggling to afford everyday items, not to mention the price of fuel, the non-existent public transport networks and difficulties getting into towns.
I believe mobile libraries offer many opportunities for our rural communities (and this is happening in other parts of the country). There are opportunities in terms of small partnerships, for example: providing hearing aid batteries, hearing support, parts for walking sticks, selling stamps and reading glasses, providing a council enquiry service, IT support, baby weighing, health checks (e.g blood pressure), photocopying, printing, citizens advice, provision of forms for various benefits… There’s also the opportunity for the mobile libraries to take part in community fairs and events which also act as a way to promote the service. There’s so much potential, and some of these small changes and improvements would make a real difference to people’s lives.
Let’s also not forget that borrowing books is also the ultimate form of recycling, which is also an extremely important point when considering the climate emergency we all face. I’d love to see the county council using their imagination to improve the service.
Physical, tangible books are so important. But especially for the elderly and the very youngest in our communities. Many people are not confident or simply don’t want to use an online service, especially in terms of reading books. There’s also the issue of unreliable broadband in rural areas. My little boy starts school in September and in the preparation info we received from the school, one of the headings says “Books! Books! Books!” Books are an essential component to education and literacy and there are mobile libraries right across the globe; people from all cultures and countries recognise it as a way to reach communities in rural and remote areas (some even via camel, although I don’t necessarily propose that here!).
3. On the Change.org petition you mention that the statistics Devon County Council use are “flawed”. In what way?
In terms of the statistics that the county council have chosen to use… they compare the numbers to 2012 which is when there were eight vans and a much fuller service (the following year they cut them down to four). Another point on their numbers, is that last year there was an arson attack on one of the vans and it was burnt to the ground. The county council never actually replaced that van, they simply put the relief van into its place. This means that every time there is a breakdown, or a van needs to go for an MOT etc, there is a disruption to the library service, which is no fault of the libraries’ users! This creates an unreliable service and inevitably has an impact on the numbers. The vans were off the road for hundreds of hours last year for that very reason.
There’s also one sentence in the council report which states there has been a RISE in users of the service since 2019! But they don’t ever mention that! I have since received more of the data from Libraries Unlimited and many areas of Devon have shown a significant rise in numbers using the service over the past few years. And the campaign itself has helped to promote the service, with many new users signing up. The population of Devon is set to grow by 88,000 over the next 20 years, with an 84% increase in people aged 85 and over. I believe mobile libraries are needed more than ever and the numbers will continue to grow if the council will allow it to!
I also question the council’s lack of financial planning in that they never set aside any reserve to replace the vans when they reached the end of their useful life…
In terms of cost to the council to replace the vans they talk about figures of up to £800,000 which seems extortionate. Last year a secondhand van was purchased for the library service which only had 29,000 miles on the clock and cost a tenth of the price of a brand new one. If the council is “strapped for cash” then maybe replacing them all with secondhand vans or leasing them would be a better alternative to buying brand new ones and would cost a fraction of the price?
Devon County Council’s meeting to discuss the future of the county’s mobile libraries takes place on September 28th. You can sign the petition in support of saving Devon’s mobile libraries online before then at:
If you prefer to sign a paper petition please contact the West Devon Free Press to find somewhere near you where you can do that.