Introducing charges to use Cambridgeshire library computers branded 'a sorry tale of incompetence' as county council does a U-turn

PUBLISHED: 14:49 12 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:54 12 March 2019

Libraries in Ely, March, St Neots and Huntingdon all part of Cambridgeshire's stock - and like the rest to have the £1 an hour fee for computer use dropped from April 1. Picture; ARCHANT

Libraries in Ely, March, St Neots and Huntingdon all part of Cambridgeshire's stock - and like the rest to have the £1 an hour fee for computer use dropped from April 1. Picture; ARCHANT

Archant

Library computer charges will be ditched after driving users away and only raising a fraction of what had been hoped in what has been branded a "sorry tale of incompetence".

Charging for computer access in Cambridgeshire’s libraries was introduced on May 1, 2018. A charge of £1 per hour was brought in for the previously free service.

Users would get an initial 30 minutes free. Job seekers and people on benefits, and children up to 18 years of age continued to access the library computers free of charge.

It had been hoped the move would help generate £108,000 a year for the council. Instead, it has been slammed as a “sorry tale of incompetence” after it ended up only making a fraction of that, and driving library users away.

Today (March 12) Cambridgeshire County Council’s highways and community infrastructure committee heard the introduction of the charges had been a failure.

Sue Wills, library services manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “The £9,000 raised is significantly short of the predicted income we had expected. Charging for computer access was a difficult decision to make. In response to negative feedback from the public and the low level of use, we are recommending the charges are removed.”

Ms Wills said that, by March 31, it is anticipated that income of £9,041 will have been raised, which is “significantly short” of the predicted income of £108,000.

The committee heard usage of computer services in libraries dropped significantly after the charges were brought in, causing “pain and inconvenience” to the people relying on the service.

A report which went before the committee reads: “The library service continues to monitor the number of computer sessions. Between May and December 2018 the number of adult user sessions dropped by 26.47 per cent from 146,788 sessions to 107,937 sessions.

“It is noticeable that there has been a significant decrease (by more than 70 per cent) in usage in sessions of between half an hour up to 2 hours, whilst there has been an increase of 15.59 per cent in computer use for 30 minutes or less.”

Cllr Amanda Taylor slammed the decision to bring in charges in the first place, saying it had been “inconvenient and harmful” for the people relying on the service.

Cllr Taylor said: “The report makes depressing reading. Introducing computer access charges, I don’t think, was a difficult decision. Most of us on this side of the room were clear it would be inconvenient and harmful and worried it would not make any money for us.

“It raised £9,000 out of the £108,000 predicted for the year, but that doesn’t measure in the machines for charging, which cost £19,000. This has cost the council. Given we are meant to be saving money, I think it is dreadful. The public made it clear before that they didn’t want the charges. I think this is a sorry tale of incompetence.”

Cllr Taylor’s Lib Dem colleague David Jenkins said the council needed to “stop apologising” for investing in libraries. Cllr Jenkins said libraries are the “anchor of the high street” and benefit early-years education, business development, and social care.

Cllr Jenkins said libraries “are about more than just books” and fulfil an important social role.

Conservative Cllr Bill Hunt said Cambridgeshire is investing in libraries, and said it is important to remember they are doing better than other county councils.

“Unlike other county councils that have been closing down libraries and shutting down services, we have been putting money in and bringing in things like the kindergartens, making libraries more a part of the community,” said Cllr Hunt. “We have also invested in new mobile libraries.”

The committee voted unanimously to remove the charges. On top of this, they agreed an upgrade for library computers. That work is now going to take place in 2019.

Cllr Mathew Shuter, chairman of the highways and community infrastructure committee, applauded the decision to remove the charges, but defended bringing them in in the first place.

“I know some people did not support it, and I understand that,” said Cllr Shuter. “But the prize of that income was one we couldn’t ignore. We were right to go ahead with it, but we are right to remove it now it has not worked. The money raised is not adequate to compensate for the pain and inconvenience it has caused.”

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