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'Significant cost challenges' spark fears over future of ageing Highland mobile library fleet

By Philip Murray

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Stack of hardcover books as background, top view.
Stack of hardcover books as background, top view.

Fears are growing that rural communities could lose access to their mobile libraries in the near future after High Life Highland warned of "significant financial challenges" ahead when asked about the state of its ageing fleet.

The Ross-shire Journal was approached by a concerned resident of Shieldaig recently amid concerns the mobile library that serves the village and other Wester Ross communities is almost at the end of its operational life.

And the response from High Life Highland will have done little to quell those concerns – not just in Wester Ross but in many other parts of the Highlands after it confirmed the scale of the problem facing the existing fleet extends beyond the one vehicle.

The organisation said that six out of its seven current mobile libraries "need replacement" before stressing the "significant financial challenges" it faces and adding that it is working with Highland Council "to better understand how such services can be delivered" and that this will "help to inform future fleet requirements".

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Flagging concerns, Shieldaig's Gordon Drysdale said: "Our Highland Council mobile library is 14 years old and with 197,000 miles on the clock there are concerns that it will be withdrawn next year and replaced by an online directory with postal delivery.

"On October 31 I met the High Life Highland chief executive and the director of culture and learning because having asked councillors about the current resourcing and plans for the service, I felt there was uncertainty in the detail.

"The chief executive is candid that High Life Highland can not provide the depth of service envisaged by their Service Delivery Contract, because of a lack of funding. Amongst all that the charity does, mobile libraries can not be a priority.

"His message is, that if the funding of our mobile libraries is to improve, it needs to become a political issue and this needs to come from the community level.

"There is an upcoming service delivery contract review, to put High Life Highland’s day-to-day delivery in step with Highland Council funding. The question that I think we should ask, is whether our elected councillors will be able to voice our priorities?

"I urge all of you who care about our mobile library – parents, teachers, community councils, parent councils, community development companies and any one else – to voice that we value the service, we want increased funding and we want the service to continue."

Responding to public concerns, HLH did not explicitly state that service delivery will change or that some mobile libraries might be axed, but its response looks likely to fuel local worries that their much-loved vehicle could be lost.

A spokesperson for High Life Highland responded: “High Life Highland and The Highland Council work in collaboration to provide the Mobile Library service to rural communities across the Highlands. High Life Highland operate the service, and The Highland Council maintains the fleet.

“Currently, six of the seven Mobile Libraries need replacement which has led to some disruptions of the service in recent times. Unfortunately, this challenge is not helped with the significant financial challenges both organisations are facing including a £108m gap over the next 3 years.

“High Life Highland and The Highland Council are currently working together to better understand how such services can be delivered including accessibility and customer needs. This will also help to inform future fleet requirements and to establish specifications and costs of replacement vehicles which will be considered as part of the overall budget process.

“As an interim measure, High Life Highland is providing an alternative service for rural customers at times when vehicles are off the road. All customers are given the option of a drop-off of books to their homes to ensure that they have access to reading material.

“While this service is not a replacement for a full Mobile Library service - which includes regular visits to communities and schools - it may ease some of the difficulties for the most vulnerable and isolated service users.”

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