DARLINGTON Borough Council has announced plans to "set aside" their contentious decision to close Crown Street Library.

On the day the authority was due to respond to a legal challenge in relation to the historic library, a lengthy statement was issued saying a "fresh decision" would be made in around three months.

Councillors attending a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, September 13, are set to approve the proposal to postpone the relocation of the library to the Dolphin Centre.

The statement in full read:

Members of Darlington Borough Council’s Cabinet will meet next week to consider plans for the library service. In June, councillors voted to move the main town centre library from Crown Street to a purpose-built facility at the Dolphin Centre, as part of the Medium Term Financial Plan.

Since then, officers have continued to develop designs for how the service will look and meet the needs of current and future users. The council is planning further public engagement on these. Further clarification has also been obtained on the legal position concerning the Crown Street building. In addition, a legally funded opponent of the proposals is considering asking for a judicial review of the decision.

Extensive investigations of the legal issues relating to the building have been ongoing for a number of months. In June, members were advised that it was probable that Crown Street was held on trust for use as a library. As well as consulting with the Charities Commission, Cabinet will meet in the separate capacity of Trustee of the Crown Street building, to decide what should happen to it if and when the library service is relocated.

Although the Council is confident that it has grounds on which to defend the legal challenge, it is keen to avoid the substantial cost to the public purse a full judicial review hearing would incur and the delay that would be caused.

In light of the issues relating to the Crown Street building and the threat of a judicial review, together with the planned further consultation, it is being recommended that Cabinet members set aside the decisions made in relation to the library service.

The original proposals – including the relocation of the library service to the Dolphin Centre – have not been withdrawn. It is hoped members will be in a position to make a fresh decision on the library service within the next three months.

The timescale for considering the future of the Crown Street building will be dependent on decisions of Cabinet in their joint capacity as Trustee. These decisions may also need the approval of the Charities Commission. A meeting of Cabinet as Trustee will need to be held to consider the current position and the options for Crown Street. Public notice will be given about any meeting and members of the press and public will be welcome to attend.

Councillor Nick Wallis, Darlington Borough Council’s Cabinet member for leisure and local environment, said: “It is regrettable that a legal challenge has come forward at this late stage about the decisions that were made in June about the library service. The issue of the relocation of the library service from Crown Street was vehemently opposed by some on principle from the start and I admire the passion of those who campaigned against the proposals.

"My own view, however, is that it has always been clear to me that we need to reach out to new users who do not currently use the library service and it is these potential new users who would benefit most from the co-location of leisure and library services in the Dolphin Centre.

“Unfortunately the financial position the Council is facing remains as difficult as it was and we still need to make further efficiencies. Let’s not forget that the library proposals were just one part of a wide range of savings agreed in June – others include cuts to street cleaning and a raft of other Council services.

"Defending expensive litigation against a legally-aided claimant would not help us to deliver savings. It would however mean that our ability to do anything further regarding the relocation of the library service is put on hold while the legal case is ongoing.

“We have further matters to deal with in any event. Since June, officers have been further developing the design, layout and service to be offered at the Dolphin Centre library. There is also the need for Cabinet, acting in the capacity of sole trustee, to meet to consider what happens to the Crown Street building, should the library service relocate.

“The advice from officers is that further consultation and work on the design and operation of the Dolphin Centre library is needed and also that Cabinet as Trustee will need to meet to consider the future of Crown Street should the library service cease to be run from there.

"We expect to shortly be starting consultation about the detail and there also needs to be a meeting of the Trustee. I’d prefer we move these things forward, rather than get bogged down in litigation.

“Although we are being asked to formally set aside the earlier decisions councillors made as far as the library is concerned, I want to make it very clear that plans to move the library are not being shelved.”

Cabinet meets at 5pm on Tuesday, September 13.

The Northern Echo understands library staff were briefed on the developments on Tuesday evening.