(Above) Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has taken an unprecedented step after plans by Wirral Council sparked fury
A last-minute intervention by Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has saved libraries across the Wirral from being axed following protests by outraged local residents and MPs.
More than a dozen buildings faced closure as part of dramatic proposals from Wirral Council aimed at saving £3.7 million a year.
Mr Burnham has stepped in under the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act to order the first review of its kind since 1991 after an investigation by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council expressed misgivings over the proposed restructuring.
"I have ordered this inquiry to help me draw my own conclusion as to whether the plans in the Wirral are consistent with its statutory duties," he said, warning that libraries should "never be an optional extra" for local authorities.
"I have a statutory responsibility to ensure everyone has access to a comprehensive and efficient service, because ready access to high quality libraries for all is absolutely central to a truly public service."
An all-day demonstration planned at Wallasey Village library on Saturday (April 4 2009) turned into a celebration following the news, as staff and users dispensed with the boxes they had filled doomed books with.
"Andy Burnham's decision blows a hole through the Labour and Liberal Democrat administration’s whole argument that services won't be affected or that somehow 'buildings don't matter'," Liscard Conservative Councillor Leah Fraser told the Wirral Globe.
"Nobody I have met wanted this library to close and it looks like the Culture Department in London shares those concerns.
"The people of Wallasey love our libraries and we will continue to keep up the pressure until these cuts are dead and buried, and if that means the leadership of the council goes too, then so be it."
Wirral West MP Stephen Hesford called the plans "an act of corporate vandalism" in an angry letter to Wirral Council leader Steve Foulkes.
"It is clear that what set out to be an exercise to 'improve the use of the council’s land and assets…for the benefit of the people of Wirral' has become a wholesale slaughter of services," he wrote. "It is impossible to see which of Wirral's people benefits."
Wirral South MP Ben Chapman, who had urged Burnham to act, hailed the development as "without doubt a positive step" and thanked voters after delivering 500-strong petitions to Parliament in a bid to save town libraries in Eastham and Higher Bebington.
"The decision that was taken by the Council in relation to Eastham was wrong in both form and substance," he declared, accusing officials of acting "without adequate consultation with library users, employees and stakeholders." Plans to close Eastham Library were revealed after the original Strategic Asset Review had been produced.
"Residents there were not given the opportunity to respond to the consultation period because they initially thought that there was no closure threat," argued Chapman.
"I have emphasised on a number of occasions the importance of protecting local libraries for local people. My constituents feel that the South of Wirral is getting short shrift in relation to the North."
In a stormy February Council meeting, Eastham Councillor Phil Gilchrist demanded immediate work on a new plan to "retain and enhance" the threatened services as the best way of meeting the needs of the "geographically dispersed and diverse" nearby communities.
Organisers at Irby Library, which had been awaiting closure since a council decision in January 2009, felt the Council had "put the axe where they have wanted to put it for many years," describing the potential closure as "yet another nail in the coffin for village life" and questioning the apparent cessation of cultural amenities in the light of plans to increase the number of convenience stores and fast food outlets in the area.
Around 50 locals turned up at Ridgeway Library to applaud the intervention, and comments on the Globe website lambasted Foulkes as "a complete idiot" in between calls for residents to hit back through the ballot papers at the next General Election.
"Ensuring our public library service is fit for the 21st century can sometimes mean difficult decisions and I certainly would not stand in the way of any council who wants to modernise," emphasised Burnham, who will publish the report in June.
"I also appreciate that the Wirral has historically had an above average number of libraries serving a changing population demographic. But the balance has to be right and modernisation should never compromise core provision of access."