Opposition to the surprise decision by Moray Council’s Tory and Independent administration to ignore an Equalities Impact Assessment (EIA) and advice of their own legal department is gathering strength this evening.
The leader of Moray Council, Allan Wright, admitted in a national television interview that he accepted the council were now liable to a legal challenge over their decision to close seven libraries in Moray – ignoring the EIA that they themselves commissioned, and which advised the retention of three of the libraries.
It now appears likely that individual community campaign groups in the affected communities will join together to study their next move, with a legal challenge under the Equalities Act 2010 an increasing possibility.
Leading the condemnation of the decision by three Conservative and ten Independent councillors was the leader of the SNP opposition group, Councillor Pearl Paul, who said: “Today’s decision is a black day for the seven Moray communities who will now be losing their local library.
“This decision was taken against strong legal advice and the council could be challenged on the decision at significant financial cost to Moray and I have to seriously question the administration’s competence following their decision today.
“We keep being told about the financial challenges faced by the Council yet this decision will ultimately cost the council dear, whether through further challenges on library closures or through the negative impact on community life in Moray. I believe this will negate any savings achieved and, in fact, impact on other services the Council provides as well.
“What we saw was an Administration taking a major decision that clearly surprised council officers and you have to question how that lack of communication and coherence on such an important decision could happen.”
Labour councillor for Fochabers/Lhanbryde, Sean Morton, said that he was left “bitterly disappointed” by the decision, adding: “We fought these closures hard but more to the point, the communities fought them hard.
“This is a Tory-led council that is utterly blinkered in its approach to slashing services. They have had no concern for the people of these rural communities.
“Mark my words, we were not opposing just for the sake of opposing. Our proposal which the SNP eventually backed would have sadly closed some libraries but saved others – which was in agreement with all the expert advice.
“But the Tories and their allegedly Independent colleagues took the hammer to rural libraries, not just cutting to the bone but cutting right through it. They have made Moray a national embarrassment.”
This evening Moray’s MSP, Richard Lochhead, sent his own message of support to campaigners in Burghead, whom he joined in a March protesting the closures weeks after the original decision was taken.
Mr Lochhead said: “This is an unbelievably short-sighted decision by the Tory/Independent Administration on Moray Council, which the SNP has fought against since the proposals were first put forward by the Tory leader in the council’s budget.
“I feel absolutely gutted for all the campaigners who have put their heart and soul into trying to save their local libraries. This is a kick in the teeth for them and It is incredible that the Council’s Administration think this is even a remotely acceptable position.
“I am particularly staggered that Independent councillors elected on the premise of standing up for their local communities have voted en masse against their communities wishes.”
Also voicing his support was Moray’s MP, Angus Robertson, who used social media networks to monitor with growing concern the events in the Moray Council chamber.
Mr Robertson said: “Moray’s libraries and their dedicated staff are recognised nationally for providing a fantastic library service and it is outrageous that the reward for that from the Tory and Independent councillors in Moray is seven library closures and the loss of library jobs.
“It is an unbelievable decision and will be rightly condemned in Moray and well beyond as well. We now need to see what options are available to continue fighting these plans.”