Two new mobile library vans will now be purchased by the Comhairle following a vote by councillors.
At a meeting of the Full Council on Wednesday, Councillors backed a motion in favour of the purchase proposed by Harris and South Lochs Councillor, John Mitchell, by a majority of 16 to 12, despite strong opposition to the move by the Comhairle’s Leader, Convenor and some Committee Chairs.
The vote overturned a decision on the same issue at the previous meeting of the Comhairle, and commits the Comhairle to purchasing the vehicles at a cost close to £250k, and with annual running cost of more than £170k.
Funding for the purchase of the vans had been agreed by the Comhairle three years before, with the required funds being ring-fenced in Comhairle budgets, but the purchase had been delayed.
Councillor Mitchell’s proposal was an amendment to the decision of the Comhairle’s powerful Policy and Resources Committee to defer purchase of the vans pending the outcome of the Comhairle’s Community Conversations.
Comhairle chief officers had proposed an option as part of the Community Conversations process that would cancel the purchase of large, new mobile library vehicles and instead create new Community Hubs in local schools that would house district libraries operating with a reduced mobile service – a move they claim could have saved the Comhairle £120k, and which was previously backed by a majority of Councillors.
But Councillors have now voted instead to support an option for immediate purchase of the vans and to explore options to use vehicles to deliver an extended range of services to local communities, including health, advice and service payment facilities.
The new vans will be used in runs on Lewis and Harris and in the Uists.
Councillor Roddie MacKay had opened the debate stating that: “No-one in the Chamber had proposed to do away with the mobile library service,” and that the Community Conversations were being held, “to see if we can protect and improve the library service and the social interactions through the Community Hubs.”
Cllr MacKay again recommended to members that the decision on the purchase be delayed until the Community Conversations on Community Hubs were complete.
A string of Comhairle committee chairs, along with the Comhairle’s Convenor, also argued that communities could become disillusioned by the Community Conversation process if a decision was taken before they were complete to proceed with the purchase of the vans.
Cllr Mitchell, in proposing his amendment, stated that the mobile library services were a ‘life-line’ service for many disabled and housebound people, and was critical of what he claimed to be ‘phoney rhetoric’ contained in an interim report on the Community Conversations that proposed there was a majority of participants at the consultations in favour of further investigating the idea of the community hubs. Cllr Mitchell stated concerns that many of those who use the mobile library service might not have been able to attend the Community Conversaiton events.
Point Councillor, Norrie MacDonald, also stated that he felt that “a gun had been placed to his head” over the issue by suggestions, he claimed to be in a report, on the future of the mobile library service that purchase of the vans could lead to cuts with the lose of up to five jobs in the library service and with the potential for reduced opening hours at libraries or even branch closures. Cllr MacDonald rejected that analysis as being the only option available should the purchase proceed.
Barraigh, Bhatarsaigh, Eiriosgaigh agus Uibhist a Deas Councillor, Calum MacMillan, stated: “This is an amendment to support what we already have. Community Hubs are a good idea but the proposals don’t go far enough, they have to be thought out and costed. We have to go with what is before us today.
“Many people think of the Comhairle as council tax and mobile library vans. If we remove those all they will see is council tax, the library service is the service that reaches out. The vans service the outlying communities and through them they see some return for their council tax.”
Barra Councillor, Donald Manford, also rejected a suggestion that purchasing the vans meant an end to the Community Conversations on Community Hubs and in improving the library service, and argued that the extended service provision of the new vans could be a part of the discussions.
In closing the debate, Comhairle Leader Roddie MacKay, criticised the use of the term ‘phoney’ in a debate in which Comhairle officers had no opportunity to defend their work on the matter, or the reports they had prepared.
Speaking after the debate, Cllr Mitchell stated: “I have to pay tribute to my Lewis colleagues and my Uist and Barra colleagues because they swung it for us. It’s quite unusual to see the hierarchy of the council, all the chairs all in agreement, and I felt a bit like King Canute holding back the tide, but I do think there has been too much prevarication, and I think common sense has prevailed.
“The other plans have not been costed; they have not been discussed properly, they have never been teased out properly, and I still have not seen any people in Harris and South Lochs who do not want the retention of the mobile library vans.
“The community hubs can provide good ideas for, maybe, transportation or road gritting where communities might be able to do it cheaper than the Comhairle, but the economy of scale for mobile libraries is unarguable in my book.
“For me, the cost of this is a small sum for such a life-line service in the Western Isles, and I’m delighted that we have achieved what we have set-out to achieve.”
Councillor Leader, Roddie MacKay, stated: “I’ve got a sense recently that members are just fed up. It has taken so long to arrive at a decision on this but it’s a shame that we’ve come this far and we haven’t just allowed the community conversations to complete.
“We asked for a report on this a year ago last September, and I can understand that members are frustrated and they just want to get on with it and buy the vans. So, I’m not surprised by it but I think we should have maybe waited a little while longer.”