A COUNCIL was accused of "cultural vandalism" as a judicial review into its decision to close a historic library got underway.

High Court Judge Mrs Justice Philippa Whipple is presiding over a two-day hearing that pits Darlington Borough Council against campaigners fighting to protect Crown Street Library. 

Today, the judge heard arguments from Nicholas Bowen QC, acting on behalf of the protestors, and Richard Clayton QC, making representations for the council.

The case was brought using legal aid and centres on proposals to close Crown Street Library and move much of its resources to the nearby Dolphin Centre. The plans were announced in 2016 as part of a £12.5m programme of budget cuts.

Mr Bowen’s opening arguments focused on whether the council’s consultation into the plans was conducted fairly.

He also questioned whether an alternative business plan for the operation of the library at Crown Street put forward by campaigners was given enough credence and whether the authority provided adequate support and time for them to prepare their proposal.

In 2016, then council chief Ada Burns told campaigners that the council would support them in developing an alternative plan but Mr Bowen claimed that that pledge had not come to fruition and their steering group was left with just seven weeks to prepare a proposal that was rejected after the council paid PricewaterhouseCoopers £10,000 to analyse it. 

In an argument vehemently opposed by the council, Mr Bowen also claimed consultations had been “closed minded” and “pre-determined”, in what he said could amount to an abuse of power.

He added: "In terms of listening to the public voice, something like 95 per cent of those responding to the consultation were completely against the plan.

"This is a plan that is massively unpopular locally and is seen as an act of cultural vandalism.

"The local authority's designs would close one of the most significant, iconic buildings in Darlington."

He said that the council had shown “total reluctance” to entertain other ideas that relied upon keeping the library at Crown Street, including the suggestion that the authority could make significant financial savings by shifting its focus to the Dolphin Centre and handing that facility to another organisation to run.

Mr Bowen added: “The campaigners and those who responded to the consultation have been left feeling that they have been let down badly by the council.

“There has been a loss of confidence in the democratic process.”
The first day of the hearing ended shortly after Mr Clayton began his opening remarks by telling the court that the campaigners’ case lacked evidence in a number of respects.

Referring to a statement from council officer Paul Wildsmith – now the council’s managing director – he described the consultation process enacted in relation to the 2016 budget cut programme as “the most extensive and most accessible consultation that the council has ever run".

He also criticised the campaigners for attempting to introduce new arguments in relation to the potential running of the Dolphin Centre by another company at a late stage in the case.

Mr Clayton said: “It should have been obvious that the guillotine must come down at some point, they cannot infinitely refigure their case.”

The public gallery in Courtroom 13 at Leeds Combined Court was packed with campaigners who had travelled to hear the proceedings.

Yvonne Richardson of The Friends of Darlington Library said: "We still hope that the council will negotiate with us.

"We do not want to be in this position of wasting time and money in fighting something we really need to talk about." 

The case will continue on Tuesday.