CASH-strapped Town Hall chiefs are planning to slash library opening times in a bid to save money.
Members of the cabinet are set to discuss plans to reduce the opening hours at the borough’s 13 libraries by 20 per cent today - paving the way for a six-week public consultation.
If given the go-ahead, the proposal would see total library opening times reduced from 507 hours per week to 406 hours per week.
But the proposals have drawn sharp criticism from a leading literary figure and former local teacher as well as library groups.
Acclaimed children’s author and ex-Prescot Primary School teacher Alan Gibbons described the proposed cuts as “retrograde and flawed”.
He said: “A huge volume of evidence from UNESCO and the National Literacy Trust proves that libraries are highly effective in getting young people reading. If opening hours are slashed it is yet one more sign of the decline of our communities.
“If cuts like this go through we really can’t be said to be providing the ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service enshrined in law. Councils like St Helens should not be passively implementing government cuts but fighting them tooth and nail.”
A spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals added: “We are concerned about the impact on communities and families across the country as the impact of cuts bites into public library services.
“These services are much more than lending books – they improve literacy, provide everyone with opportunities for learning and nurture the growth of knowledge.”
Council chiefs reckon the move would save the authority £145,000 a year - but it is not yet clear whether this would be achieved through job cuts or wage reductions.
Deputy council leader Barrie Grunewald said that, crucially, the plan would enable the doors at all 13 libraries to remain open, albeit in a more limited capacity.
He said: “The proposed hours would minimise impact in the areas of greatest deprivation and provide services during times when they are most used.
“Almost all other councils have reduced the number of libraries. We are determined to keep all ours open but due to the £50m cuts imposed upon us, we are proposing to cut hours to make the necessary savings.”
St Helens Council, which has shed more than 1,000 jobs due to government cuts, had already seen a grant reduction of £36m up to 2012/13 - and must find a further £14m this year.
A Town Hall spokesman said: “We’re doing all we can to maintain the library network, and by reducing opening hours to make the required savings, we have avoided the need to close individual libraries - as is happening in many other areas.
“The Local History and Archive Unit in the Gamble Building could also reduce the hours it’s open to the general public. Under the proposals, public access will continue to be provided three days a week. For the other three days the service would be available on a pre-booked basis for heritage groups and schools.
“Discussions on staffing levels will not be taken until the consultation is complete and final proposals have been agreed.”