CONTROVERSIAL plans to close libraries have become the next target of a public backlash in the wake of the battle to stop the privatisation of ancient woodlands.

Campaigners who forced a Government climbdown over plans to privatise forests said axing libraries would be the next flashpoint for people fed up with swingeing cuts in services.

And the public rebellion is already gathering pace.

North Yorkshire County Council, which carried out a three-and-a-half-month consultation into cost-cutting proposals that could see the closure of 23 libraries, said it had received thousands of replies. It described the response as phenomenal.

In Darlington, officials say a review into the future of the town’s libraries may now take as long as a year to complete following protests.

And Durham County Council has also put back until next year a decision on which libraries will be closed.

Privately, some councils admit they have been surprised by the public outrage sparked by the threat to lending libraries.

And staff who fear they may lose their jobs say libraries are now busier than they have been for years after people woke up to the danger.

The news came as children across the region visited libraries as part of the celebrations for World Book Day.

North Yorkshire is looking to cut its £7.5m library budget by £1.1m over the next 12 months and by £2.3m over the next four years.

It has put at risk 24 out of the 42 libraries it runs, including those in Easingwold, Bedale and Great Ayton.

Last month, the council created a one-off fund of £650,000 to give volunteer-led community groups the chance to put forward proposals to run the service.

The consultation exercise ended earlier this week, and the council revealed yesterday it had received thousands of letters and emails and petitions carrying several thousand signatures.

More than 2,000 people attended public meetings to protest against the plans.

Library campaigner and author Mike Pannett, of Easingwold, near York, last night urged the council to take heed of the huge public response.

He said: “They will have to really look at this now. I think people have been stirred up by this and their voices have been heard. People have had enough.”

Playwright Alan Bennett yesterday likened library closures in North Yorkshire to child abuse.

He said: “Closing a public library is child abuse really because it hinders child development.

“It delays their capacity to read and learn, and once that damage has been done, it can’t be undone.”

Julie Blaisdale, the county council’s assistant director of library and community services, said Mr Bennett’s comments were not entirely appropriate.

A report on the possible closures is expected to go before the council by May.

Ms Blaisdale said: “I’m not surprised by this phenomenal response (to the consultation).

We are looking at it library by library and we are looking at what people are saying to keep libraries open as community libraries with council aid.

“The council doesn’t want to close them but, financially, it can’t continue as it is.

“We will look for different avenues, but we have to be quite honest and we can’t keep the status quo.”

Elsewhere in the region, Durham County Council plans to cut £1.5m from its libraries budget by 2015.

It is expected some libraries will close, but no details have yet been announced. Council leader Simon Henig has said none will close this year.

Darlington Borough Council is carrying out a review of its library service with the aim of cutting its £1m budget by £250,000.

Children at Cockerton Primary School have already started a campaign to protect Cockerton library.

The youngsters have designed protest posters and are writing letters to voice their opposition.

About 4,000 people in Darlington have answered questionnaires as part of the council’s review.

In Somerset and Gloucestershire, Public Interest Lawyers has launched a High Court battle against plans by the respective county councils to cut library numbers.

The application for judicial review is expected to be the first of its kind.