WIRRAL Council would have been breaking the law if it had proceeded with its plan to close 11 of the borough's 24 libraries, a Government inspector said today.
The closures were scrapped on September 30 - just two days before the first draft of inspector Sue Charteris' report was originally due to be published.
The ruling Lib-Lab cabinet said they were scrapping the controversial closures because of budgetary needs - any planned savings from library closures this year had been lost due to the length of the inquiry into them.
But it has now emerged that had they proceeded the council would have been in breach of its stautory duties under the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act.
Some key points made in the Charteris report are:
* "The council failed to make an assessment of local needs in respect of its Library Services."
* "I am profoundly concerned at the lack of transparency of this process."
* "The council has not been able to demonstrate that it has had due regard to the general requirements of children. I consider this to be a breach of its statutory duties."
* "I recognise that Wirral MBC, like other authorities across the country, has considerable pressure on service budgets and needs to ensure it is making the best use of its resources both now and in the future. The absence of a strategic plan or a development plan for the service, based on an assessment of need and a contemporaneous review of the service, completely hinders the council being able to describe how its plans will meet the needs of and have due regard for those who live, work and study in Wirral."
* "I believe that the evidence shows that the Council took the decision to close the libraries without having first established the extent and range of library provision it was providing within the buildings, including those which were 'core' to the service and which were ancillary."
* "My assessment is that the Council’s decision to close 11 of its libraries and develop the remaining 13 into integrated Neighbourhood Centres was and remains premature, and risks being a partial response to local need that would disadvantage relatively isolated and deprived communities. I therefore believe there to be a further breach in relation to the needs of deprived communities.
* "I have found that due to the absence of an assessment of needs and a strategic Library Service review, the council has displayed a lack of logic around why some facilities were recommended for closure and not others."
Today, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge said there would be no "decision" made by Secretary of State as Wirral had abandoned the closures.
A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesman said "It is clearly no longer appropriate to rule on their [Wirral's]earlier decision.
"Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council are therefore not in breach of their statutory duty."
Miss Hodge's statement says: "Pursuant to his powers under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (“the Act”), the Secretary of State launched a local inquiry into the library service provided by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (“Wirral MBC”) to gather evidence to test whether Wirral MBC's planned restructuring of that service was consistent with their statutory duty to provide the people of Wirral with a comprehensive and efficient public library service.
"He is satisfied that the Inquiry has been conducted fairly and in accordance with the statutory rules on procedure.
"However, after the report on the Inquiry was received by the Secretary of State, Wirral MBC revoked their plans to restructure their service.
"In these circumstances it is no longer necessary for the Secretary of State to take a view on proposals which have since been dropped.
"There is therefore no finding that Wirral MBC are in breach of their statutory duty.
"The Secretary of State welcomes Wirral MBC’s decision to reconsider plans to restructure their library service.
"We hope that they will take account of the issues raised, alongside the conclusions which emerge from the national libraries review, when considering future decisions.
"In respect of any wider implications of the Inquiry, the Secretary of State confirms that, in accordance with the clear requirements of the Act, local authorities are well placed to understand the needs of their local communities and are responsible for delivering local services relative to those needs.
"The Secretary of State will always wish, where possible, to use ways other than a formal inquiry in exercising his statutory obligations.
"It is, however, an ongoing requirement of all local authorities to fulfil their duties under the Act, and of the Secretary of State to consider intervening where an allegation or question arises that an authority may not have done so.
"The Secretary of State wishes to emphasise the importance of all local authorities, being mindful of the needs of those living, working and studying in the area and of how they are addressing such needs in fulfilling their duty to deliver a comprehensive and efficient service."