THERE is a new chapter in the dispute over the future of Essex’s libraries.

Essex County Council has promised not to cut the number of its libraries and has launched a consultation to improve services.

So is this a new twist in the story which has gripped the county?

The council triggered an almighty reaction three years ago in November 2018 when it was announced there were plans to close 25 out of 74 libraries and remove support for a further 18.

The backlash was strong with campaign group Save Our Libraries Essex (Sole) leading the fight against the proposals.

The campaigners recruited some big names, such as authors David Walliams and Dame Jacqueline Wilson, and kept up sustained campaigning throughout 2018 and 2019.

Pressure on the council built and it ditched the controversial proposals in 2019.

Some protesters remained sceptical, however, and there was a groundswell of community opposition to any moves to shut libraries.

They demonstrated with their feet in September 2020 when they trekked across parts of Essex in a week long protest.

Sole members started out at Manningtree Library before heading past others in Brightlingsea, Wivenhoe, Prettygate, Stanway, Tiptree and Coggeshall.

But Kevin Bentley has made his - and the council’s - position clear.

He will not be cutting libraries. In fact, the plan is to invest in them and make them fit for future generations.

The county council is now developing a four-year plan which seeks to improve services and maximise the number of people using libraries.

Read more >> David Walliams backs campaign to save Essex's libraries

Informal consultations and early engagement have begun with a view to producing a draft plan in October, which will be followed by a public consultation from mid-November to January.

This will be followed by a review of the consultation in early 2022 and then the finalisation and signing off of the plan.

Deputy council leader Louise McKinlay wants to get the council’s position across.

She said it aims to improve the library service in three key areas.

The first will be to look at how the library delivers its service. Libraries currently provide a number of services beyond the traditional borrowing of hardback books.

These include ebooks and enewspaper services, ancestry research, school class visits and free internet access.

Essex libraries also recently hosted a summer reading challenge, which saw 17,000 children take part.

The council said it wants to focus on the service so it can reduce falling visitor numbers.

Ms McKinlay said: “We have 74 libraries in Essex and 74 libraries we will have.

“If you look back over the last ten years, even before Covid, the number of library users has been falling.

Gazette: Councillor Louise McKinlay (PAUL STARR Photographer)

“We want a strong offer of core activities that we know communities value. 

“A strong focus on recovery, growing footfall into the service, both online and a new and exciting digital offer.”

The council is also focusing on library infrastructure.

Ms McKinlay said libraries could see anything from minor changes to large-scale overhauls, such as the current redevelopments taking place in Shenfield and Loughton libraries.

Redeveloping libraries could see their services relocated temporarily to other buildings in a bid to maintain the service during disruptive works.

Gazette: David Walliams one one of the big names to back the campaign against the council's plansDavid Walliams one one of the big names to back the campaign against the council's plans

She said: “Infrastructure is another area, making sure the libraries have good IT, wifi connections and even wifi printers and looking at where do we need to invest - making them more convenient and more accessible, even if it is just to come in with a laptop and sit down.

“We are looking at opportunities for development, such as plans to redevelop the current Shenfield library.

“It is about making sure buildings are accessible, although for some it may be as simple as a new lick of paint.”

The last tranche of the overhaul is to try to bring more people back to using libraries.

“We also need to look at how we can use libraries as part of a broader agenda,” Ms Mckinlay said.

“We need to really have a conversation with people who aren’t using the library service.

“To have a building be half used every week is not a good use of the building and taxpayers’ money.

”We’re a very big county and people will have different needs locally.

“We want to show people a comprehensive service and make residents aware of what is on offer, but also find out what they want to see to from them.”

The council still may have some work to do to convince its critics.

Sole is still campaigning hard and has set out a list of ten points which it wants the council to follow, including demanding a pledge not close any of the 74 libraries currently in use in Essex and increasing the number of paid and trained staff.

Read more >> Campaigners set out ten-point plan to revive libraries across Essex

The council has agreed volunteers could have a role to play, but says it would only be in addition to the current library staff, not replacing them.

The pledge is one the current administration says it has already championed, but now the council says it wants to reaffirm its position.

Gazette: Young protesters fight to save libraries back in 2018 and 2019Young protesters fight to save libraries back in 2018 and 2019

To have your say on the consultation, residents should keep an eye out for upcoming consultation events.

Once the council announces a first draft of the four-year plan, which is expected to be in late September to October, consultation events are expected to be scheduled for dates in November.

The consultation will then run until January. For more information, residents can visit or contact Essex County Council Libraries on 0345 603 7628.