A Harris councillor says the reprieve for mobile library services in the Western Isles is ‘just the start’ of a long battle to protect services against budget cuts.

Councillors voted 16/12 in favour of an amendment tabled by Councillor John Mitchell at the full meeting of the Comhairle on Wednesday night (December 12th) in which he suggested keeping the mobile library service and buying new vans to maintain its future. Council officers had instead recommended replacing mobile library services with ‘community hubs’, manned by volunteers and offering a range of services.

Councillor Mitchell told welovestornoway.com: “I had already put this amendment forward in the October meeting and it had fallen 18/12, but some of those who voted it against it came to me later to say that they wanted to give the Comhairle a chance to explain what community hubs would be like and to conclude the series of ‘community conversations’, to see if there were any novel ideas coming forward.

“I returned to the full Comhairle with this further amendment this week and gave my reasons why we should keep the mobile libraries. These are:

“That a caring council should protect its most vulnerable residents, including frail, elderly and disabled people living in very remote areas.

“That I had done my research and found that equivalent councils in Shetland, Orkney and Highland run an effective mobile service and that we should learn from them. Highland has eight mobile vans and replaces them regularly to ensure the longevity of the fleet.

“Our first responsibility as councillors is to respond to our constituents and the people I described would be devastated if they lost their mobile library service. It’s not just a book the service brings to them, but a visit, a conversation and company.

“I also reminded councillors that we keep being told that our committee chairs are passionately in favour of maintaining the mobile service, yet there have been years of prevarication over the need to spend on new vans – effectively the service has been run down.”

Cllr Mitchell pointed out that the capital cost of purchasing new vans and the £240,000 budget for running the service had already been ring-fenced by an earlier council and that it was not therefore eligible as a saving.

He said: “There are other areas that have been left outside the service redesign proposals so why not put libraries outside it too? One quarter of one per cent of the total budget is needed for something some would call a lifeline service.”

Paying tribute to the councillors who supported his amendment, Cllr Mitchell pointed out that other councillors resented ‘a climate of fear’ in the meeting. A suggestion by council officers that, if mobile libraries were not cut, other services such as school libraries would have to take a hit, was described by Councillor Norrie ‘Tomsh’ Macdonald (Sgire an Rubha) as ‘a gun to the head’ of councillors.

Councillor Mitchell said: “I also questioned the presentation of facts following the community conversations. Of 67 respondents, 17 came out in support of the proposed community hubs, yet council officers described this as ‘a majority’. When I was at school, a majority was the larger part of a number – I drew attention to this claim at the meeting.”

Despite a win on Wednesday over mobile library services, Cllr Mitchell now expects repercussions. He said: “Two new vans have to be bought – the money is there and the vehicles have been identified, but I think there will be retaliatory tactics such as cuts to school libraries.

“I have written to the councillors who supported me, asking them to resist any such cuts. Budget savings may have to be made, but I am ready for another fight if necessary – this is just the start.”