VOLUNTEERS who spend hours running community libraries across the county are becoming concerned about a 'soft market test' being carried out by the council in the autumn.

As part of Herefordshire Councils' spending cuts they are currently reviewing services for libraries.

Mark Ferrero, chairman of Friends at Leintwardine Community Library, has written to councillor Harry Bramer, cabinet member for contracts and assets, to express his concern over the future running of libraries in the county.

He believes that the 'soft market test' being carried out in the Autumn will see the council approach the market to identify potential outside bodies interested in running any, or all, of these services under a third-party contractual arrangement.

"The public library service is one of the great British achievements of the post-war period, and the public regard it in the same light as the NHS – as part of what defines us as British," said Mr Ferrero.

"Parliament has entrusted stewardship of the public library service to local councils for over 50 years, and there appears to be no public appetite for any radical undoing of the status quo.

"You will recall the county-wide outcry that greeted the options mooted in 2013 which included closing all libraries in Herefordshire, bar the one in Hereford City. Our library service is popular, despite a nearly 40 per cent reduction in opening hours over the last decade.

"I believe we should be working together to realise the library service’s potential to boost the local economy, and support vulnerable, isolated and lonely people in rural communities like ours. To do so would both improve health and wellbeing and reduce the burden on NHS and social care services."

Library support groups in the county are working closely together under the banner Joint Action for Herefordshire Libraries (JAHL). Mr Ferrero thinks that the council should be working with the action group on future plans for the service.

He added: "JAHL has a principled objection to the idea of the library service being run by any ‘for profit’ organisation as we believe there would be a fundamental conflict between the ethos of such an organisation and a public service that is free at the point of use.

"I am pleased that there is now an emerging plan for the library service, but disappointed that library support groups aren’t being properly consulted in its development.

"There are many ways in which the draft plan could be improved, for example by having a clear set of specific objectives and a timetable for achieving them. Library support groups have a lot to offer in terms of how to improve our libraries, and we want to bring our ideas to the table in a constructive spirit of collaboration."

In response a spokesman for Herefordshire Council said: "In May 2016 the council invited the Local Government Association (LGA) to review its delivery of services covering museums, libraries and archive and a series of recommendations were made which the council are now working through.

"One of the recommendations reflects a decision made by cabinet in October 2016 to conduct a soft market test for the library services which will be progressed in the autumn as planned. The cabinet member report for this week reflects on the LGA recommendations and other progress relating to the service areas."