THE countdown is underway for a controversial scheme in which 21 libraries will be handed over to communities.

North Yorkshire County Council's timetable for the transfer gives 16 months for volunteer groups to be set up to effectively take over running the libraries.

The restructure is due to save nearly £1.5m, towards the council’s budget reduction of £167m by 2020.

A meeting of the authority’s executive has been told many groups have been set up, but there are seven towns - including Stokesley, Catterick, Colburn and Thirsk - which are on a red list where management groups have yet to be formed.

The aim is that support groups will submit business plans by May, following consultations between January and April to restructure the existing staff.

There are mounting concerns there will be insufficient time to meet the council's deadline.

One supporter at Bedale library, where there is an established group and who asked not to be named, said: "At present, volunteers in libraries are not even allowed to put returned books back on shelves and yet they are now effectively being asked to run small businesses.

“I have requested the latest annual accounts for a quick overview of where savings can be made, nothing has been forthcoming so far. The dialogue has not even begun as far as I can see.”

The county's assistant chief executive of libraries, Mary Weastell, told councillors the scheme represented an extremely challenging programme of change, but the the level of interest shown in volunteering and the calibre of people coming forward had been encouraging.

She said: “As we continue work with communities, a clearer picture will emerge as to the risk for each locality, and a more detailed equalities impact assessment for individual localities will need to be carried out if closure of a library appears likely."

Councillor Chris Metcalfe, executive member for libraries, told the meeting a conference with local councillors and existing and potential management groups had revealed the staffing cutbacks scheme appeared to be increasingly accepted.

“A lot of these people were campaigning against what we were doing and now they are engaging with communities and trying to find a solution," he said.

"There are a lot of county councillors who are engaging with their communities to make this happen."