The council’s Labour-run cabinet will meet next month to reconsider the relocation of the town’s library service after a majority of councillors opposed the plan at a full council meeting last night.
Votes by opposition Lib Dem and Conservative councillors have effectively delayed the Stockroom plan but the final decision on whether to shut Central Library still lies with the cabinet, which has already voted unanimously to approve the plan once.
If the cabinet once again votes to approve Stockroom and the relocation of the library, opposition councillors cannot call in the decision again, according to the council’s constitution.
“What I hope will happen is irrelevant,” said Mike Hurleston, leader of Stockport’s Conservative Group.
“At the end of the day, it is completely within [the cabinet’s] right to make the same decision [again].”
Cllr Mark Hunter, leader of Stockport’s Lib Dems, was pleased with the outcome of last night’s vote but was not confident that the library plan would change upon its referral back to cabinet.
“Labour did not show an ounce of humility or contrition in face of overwhelming opposition,” he told Place North West.
Under plans approved by the council’s cabinet in December, Stockroom would see Stockport’s library service moved from Central Library on Wellington Road to revamped former retail units at Merseyway.
A library would only be one element of Stockroom. The 47,000 sq ft civic hub also includes plans for a café and will be used as a one-stop-shop for council services including registering deaths and marriages and providing careers advice.
Those opposed to the relocation of the library support the other elements of Stockroom but want to see Central Library remain open.
However, the cabinet has maintained Central Library is underused and not fit for purpose, claiming that relocating the library to Merseyway would allow more people to access it.
“Unfortunately, we have to face facts. The way people learn has changed dramatically since Central Library was built more than 100 years ago,” said council leader Elise Wilson.
“We simply cannot ignore the huge decline in usage of the current Central Library building, which has seen visitor numbers almost halve in eight years.”
However, the decision to shut Central Library has proved unpopular with residents, who want Central Library to stay open. More than half of the people who took part in a recent online consultation were against the idea.
Cllr Ian McGahan, the chair of the council’s scrutiny committee, last night accused Labour’s cabinet of “dismissing valid public and member concerns about the move” and failing to accept the viewpoint of anyone other than themselves”.
Opposition councillors have also raised questions about the project’s funding.
The government has pledged £14.5m of Future High Streets cash to the scheme but opposition councillors say they have not received any proof that the award of the grant is contingent on relocating the library services.
“There is no evidence to suggest the library must shut to enable Stockroom,” Hurleston said.
Central Library is in need of refurbishment but the FHSF cash cannot be spent on this as the building is not located in the town centre and therefore does not comply with the rules of the fund.
Stockport’s cabinet has sought to ease residents’ fears about the much-loved building, insisting it will not be sold, demolished or redeveloped.
Plans to use the building as a hub for one or more council departments are being progressed.
“Central Library is a unique asset that is cherished and that is why we have already pledged to safeguard its future,” Wilson added.
The wrangling over Stockroom is another example of the fractious political environment in Stockport. In 2020, the council pulled out of the Places for Everyone plan, a joint strategic plan for housing and employment across Greater Manchester, after backlash from Lib Dems and Conservatives.
Following last years’ elections, the Lib Dems have the highest proportion of seats on the council, 26 out of 63, overtaking Labour, which has 25.
In May 2021, a Lib Dem motion to remove Wilson as leader – citing a historical precedent whereby the party with the most seats has always led the council – was voted down in what Hunter called “a grubby stitch-up”.
All eight of Stockport’s Conservative councillors voted against the motion to replace the leader but now find themselves fighting Labour on the library plan.
“It’s ironic,” Hunter told Place North West. “Had [the Conservatives] voted against forming a Labour administration we wouldn’t be in this mess.