As local authorities implement public service cuts, Paul Cook wonders if they may be writing the last chapter for public libraries.

CARS speed past on their way in and out of Darlington, customers walk from shop to shop and readers flow through the library doors. Cockerton Library is not just part of the street furniture in the hustle and bustle of its tight-knit village, but is very much an integral part of its fabric.

For more than 40 years, the library has “become very much part of the local community”, words used in the council citation on its website.

The same council that is now preparing to close it.

Cockerton Library opened its doors in September 1970 – eight years before Darlington Arts Centre, another facility facing closure as Darlington seeks to balance its budget.

Yesterday morning, a queue formed at opening time with readers returning books. The bank of computers was in constant use. Those customers spoke frankly with staff about the library’s impending closure.

Last year, Darlington Borough Council cut its library budget by a quarter. Following a long review and the input of 4,000 people across the town, £242,000 was saved through managerial reductions. But that was just the opening chapter in a tale of woe.

This year, the axe has fallen on Cockerton.

Council chiefs reckon a further £100,000 will be saved by closing it next year.

The town’s central Crown Street library survives – for now. Some of the more extreme proposals included moving it to the town hall or Dolphin Centre sports complex.

And Darlington is far from alone. The Government believes the spread of the internet has made libraries redundant. It has quietly relaxed the regulations that place a legal obligation on councils to provide library services.

Libraries prospered in Victorian times when councils were able to levy taxes to buy books.

More than half the population of the UK visits a library at least once a year, but libraries are expensive. Local authorities spend £1bn a year on them.

Last year, there were 52,000 library members and 400,000 visitors to the town’s libraries. A quarter of those passed through the doors in Cockerton. Among the hundreds who were there yesterday, it was evident the voices were dissenting against the council proposals.

For husband and wife Derek and Sarah Broadley, both retired, it is a short walk from their homes. They visit three times a week, something they would not do if they had to go into town.

Mrs Broadley says: “I’m very disappointed about the news. For a lot of older people, this is a lifeline for them to get books out.

“The staff are very friendly and nice and there are only two libraries in the town. This will be a big loss for Cockerton.”

Alan Stowers is another pensioner who regularly walks to the library, normally to read the newspaper.

He says: “I would be devastated. It would be a big loss. You only have to look at the number of people in here.

“However, you can’t blame the council because they’re being forced into it. They have to make cuts. You can only blame the Government.”

THOSE there yesterday included a class from Cockerton Primary School. When the review was launched last year, they were among the thousands who wrote into the council. And will do so again.

Literacy co-ordinator Pat Timmins says: “When I told the children, they were devastated.

Speechless. One asked ‘Where are we going to instead?’ “It’s too far to go to the town centre so it’s going to have an impact on children using books and those who don’t have internet access at home.

“I think it’s quite a short-sighted proposal.

Obviously, they have to make cuts – but closing Cockerton is going to be a big loss.”

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman was Labour councillor for the ward.

She says: “It’s a huge regret that councillors are being forced to make these kind of decisions.

“Cockerton is a well-loved service. The community will look to pull together to provide alternative ways to running the service.

“I know how much it means to the community.”

She believes it would be more viable to find a business plan for volunteers to run the library than it would for Darlington Arts Centre, which Darlington for Culture hopes to do.

And her suggestions have precedent elsewhere.

North Yorkshire County Council executive today is expected to staff eight of its libraries with community groups.

The authority initially proposed to close 22 of its 42 libraries, until it was forced into a Uturn because of protests.

Mark Taylor, director of external relations at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, says: “The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals has grave concerns about the level and extent of proposed cuts to public library services across England.

“The front-loading of savings to local government grants mean that proposals have been implemented quickly and often without proper preparation and consultation.

“We estimate that over 600 libraries in England could close, especially if communities don’t come forward to manage local libraries, with a reduction of 4,000 to 6,000 full-time equivalent staff.

“In a time of recession, libraries are needed more than ever.”

But it is not a programme followed everywhere.

Only last week, Stockton Central Library saw double the number of users on the first day it opened after a £1.9m refurbishment.

Another glimmer of hope comes from Somerset, where the council must reconsider its plans to end funding for 11 of its 34 static libraries following a High Court ruling.

It is a decision that Darlington Borough Council has looked at, but a council spokeswoman says: “Due to a reduction in government funding, unfortunately we have to consider how we can make savings across all our services, including savings within the library service.

“We are aware libraries are a statutory service that must be provided, and the service provided must meet local need.

“Over the past nine months a thorough assessment of local need has been completed to inform the scope of library provision.

“Residents will have the opportunity to have their say at a number of consultation events, and a full equalities impact assessment will be carried out before a final decision is made.”