CONTROVERSIAL proposals which could see Barnet’s libraries shrunk and nearly half of staff axed have been referred to full council.

Protesters gathered outside Hendon Town Hall tonight, joined by a brass band, as Barnet Council’s children, education, libraries and safeguarding (CELS) committee met to discuss the cuts.

Under the plans, which are expected to save £2.27million by 2020, all 14 libraries will remain open, and hours will be extended through technology and leaving buildings unstaffed.

Staffed opening hours will be cut back by 70 per cent, and four libraries - Childs Hill, East Barnet, Mill Hill and South Friern – will be run by volunteers as ‘partnership libraries’.

The matter was referred to full council by Conservative councillor Reuben Thompstone, chairman of CELS, which means all councillors will vote on it.

Addressing the committee, campaigner Barbara Jackson accused the council of ignoring the public’s “overwhelming rejection” of the proposals, which offered a “ghost service”.

She added: “Do you have any idea how difficult it is to run a volunteer library? Have you asked the people of Friern Barnet what they have gone through to do that? And do you expect it to be replicated in four other neighbourhoods?”

Campaigner Keith Martin asked if the proposals amounted to a policy of “closure by stealth”, by running libraries down until there was no option but to close them.

Blogger Theresa Musgrove said data in the report was flawed, and added: “Yet again you are asked to approve further privatisations of public services. It is simply madness. Why are you so easily persuaded by your officers and the leagues of consultants that it is necessary to destroy our library service?”

Cllr Thompstone said he had received a number of emails from residents which showed a “great appetite for volunteering”, and said there would be further public consultation.

He said: “There are no easy choices or decisions in Barnet. We are not alone in the challenges we face – in Brent, Harrow, Camden, libraries are closing.

“With respect to the savings target, they were unanimously agreed."

Three options were originally laid out for public consultation, which included closing libraries, reducing them in size or using volunteers to run the service.

Conservative councillor Helena Hart said: “As a member of the committee who did not support any of the three original proposals, I would very much like to welcome that we have moved away from any closures of the libraries. I think these are far better options. There is no utopia, and there is no money.”

Labour councillor Ammar Naqvi said: “I can only surmise it is a slow degradation of the library service. The primary thing we are being asked is to go out and consult. I have absolutely no faith in the consultation process.”

Cllr Naqvi said any “reasonable individual”, having looked at the three options, would have assumed they had to choose one.

Officer Val White replied: “Which is why we put in the questions around coming up with alternative proposals. A whole lot of work went into doing focus groups, activities and events.”

Discussing security at unstaffed libraries, Val White also said CCTV was not monitored live, but was used “to demonstrate to users there will be evidence”.

Onlookers shouted from the packed public gallery: “What use is evidence when it has already happened?”

Councillor Anne Hutton, Labour’s libraries spokesman, said: “I cannot find any local authority that is trying to take so much out of its library budget. This is more than 50 per cent Barnet is proposing to take out of its library budget and I just don’t think we can have a sustainable library service with that.

“I just feel we are rushing too much to do this and I feel we need to take a second look at this.”

Councillor Dan Thomas, Conservative deputy leader of the council, said: “All the Labour boroughs are actually shutting libraries and we are proposing keeping them open as best as we can.”