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Let me talk in general terms about libraries, which play a vital role in our communities and provide crucial services. When I was studying for my A-levels—not too
2 Feb 2009 : Column 680
long ago—I remember using Hartlepool’s libraries. They helped me get to university. Nowadays, the best libraries are state-of-the-art resource centres for an area, a welcome magnet for the entire community, with internet cafes, coffee shops, places of advice on jobs, skills and housing, and community rooms to allow residents’ groups to meet and community cohesion to grow. They are real assets, and it is not surprising that local residents feel so passionate about them. Indeed, during the annual, painful budget-setting round when I was a councillor on Hartlepool borough council’s cabinet, I felt so strongly about the value of local libraries that I always said that I would resign if any had been proposed for closure.

With regard to the concerns of my hon. Friend and of the residents of Eastham, I understand that the local authority has now, largely thanks to his efforts, agreed to work with the local community to explore alternative ways of making the best use of all facilities, including, as he said—I appreciate that he has some concerns about it—asset transfer to the community.

I reiterate my central argument that decisions about funding priorities and the best way in which to meet the needs of local residents must ultimately be made by local authorities. Central Government and Ministers cannot interfere in that. However, my hon. Friend made an important point about the consultation process. It is vital that that is clear, transparent and well publicised. I know that a consultation process took place between 27 November and 15 January, including four special area forum conferences, which were attended by more than 2,000 people. I also understand that the consultation was publicised in the local press and on the council’s website.

I note from my hon. Friend’s website and from his comments tonight that the decision about Eastham library was made as a result of the consultation and was not therefore directly consulted on. That is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) also mentioned it. I also note that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South was concerned that, as an important local stakeholder, he was not consulted. That is not good enough and I hope that his efforts tonight demonstrate the strength of his feeling to local decision makers. I understand that three overview and scrutiny committees met to consider recommendations presented to cabinet on 15 January. The views of those committees will be made to full council on 9 February.

There are no easy answers in such circumstances. It is not for me to interfere in such local decisions, but I emphasise that it is essential to follow the proper procedures and that local residents have every opportunity to be involved in shaping the future direction of their community.

Such decisions are undoubtedly difficult locally. It is important to strike a balance that meets the needs of as many local people as possible, providing them with the widest possible services. Given my hon. Friend’s excellent contribution tonight, I hope that he will continue to work with all local partners to help achieve the goal of excellent public services for the widest possible community.

Question put and agreed to.

9.45 pm

House adjourned.

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