A COUNCIL leader has said the Labour-led authority were right to announce plans to close an historic town centre library, despite later u-turning.

Stephen Harker, Darlington Borough Council leader, said he hoped Crown Street Library could offer an attractive service to people across all age ranges, as they continue to consult with the town's residents.

The Northern Echo:

Cllr Harker revealed his intention to keep the historic library open last September, just over two years after the idea to close it and move services to the Dolphin Centre was originally mooted.

Speaking to The Northern Echo, he said the authority would have been "shooting ourselves in the foot" by creating another empty building in the town centre, following the closure of M&S last summer and the uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of House of Fraser.

Cllr Harker said: "When we originally made the decision, library usage was in decline, particularly amongst young people and we were looking at what we could do to reverse that decline and offer a better all-round service.

"Once the court case concluded, it was three-years after we first had the conversation. Things have changed since then, we knew by then M&S were definitely going, we were still uncertain about Binns, and we were in a situation where the reasons for the move were still valid but in doing so, we knew we’d create another empty building.

"Three years ago, we were confident someone would come forward and there’d be an appropriate use for that building. But now it would be the wrong time– we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot by creating another empty building in the town centre."

Asked what he would like to see happen to the library now, Cllr Harker said it was more important for the people of Darlington to have their say.

"Libraries are always a strange mix of services – they are used by children and adults, and they see things very differently and have different experiences.

"Putting children in a library seems strange because they make lots of noise, and some parts should be noisy because children are, and if you want them to use books, you have to adapt to how children are. If it is about keeping quiet, that’s not what they want."

"It has got to reflect that need, but also be sympathetic that adults do go in there for peace and quiet to go and look at books.

"It is about providing something that enables lots of different things to work together so whoever goes in thinks that provides a space for me. The initial designs for the Dolphin Centre were looking at how we do that."

When Cllr Harker announced his intention to keep the library open, he said the council would invest £2m refurbishing it, which includes work on the roof and heating, as well as its services.

The u-turn followed a lengthy legal battle with objectors which also included a judicial review.

Cllr Harker said: "It is difficult because it is a very old building. If you were building a new library you wouldn’t build a building like that.

"It is more important to hear what people in Darlington want rather than just my view, and there are lots of different interests people have.

"We were right to suggest it – we were talking about the provision of the library service. What was lost in all the discussions about council finances was improving the service and improving literacy rates, particularly for younger people, as well as their interest in literature and reading, changing habits, modern IT facilities.

"It is an old historic building and the service has been in there since its inception.

"What do you do? You preserve a beautiful historic building but you change the service overtime and you have to keep changing to make it an attractive offering to people so they can use it.

"It can't just be people standing outside saying 'what a beautiful building' – it has to have something inside that gives library users what they want and need."

Last month, a council survey found residents do not want radical changes to the library.