Aberdeenshire Council pledges to keep libraries and pools open despite budget issues
Easier access to your trusted, local news. Subscribe to a digital package and support local news publishing.
Aberdeenshire Council has pledged to keep libraries and pools open across the region as it prepares to set its budget for the year ahead.
The local authority may have to plug a £67 million gap, meaning some “tough decisions” will need to be made in the weeks to come.
In an exclusive interview with the LDRS ahead of the budget setting process, we asked council bosses what could be on the chopping block.
Council leader Gillian Owen made a stark warning that “everything is on the table”.
Live Life Aberdeenshire oversees the region’s leisure offering which includes libraries, pools, museums and sports facilities.
It employs 338 members of staff to ensure everything runs smoothly.
But there are some challenges with operating these services.
This includes both planned or unplanned closures, while emergency repair work may be needed to ensure they can open as usual.
In a council survey held late last year, it was revealed that just over half of participants put leisure in their top five most important services.
But is anything at risk as the difficult budget looms?
Aberdeenshire Council operates 13 indoor swimming pools across the region, along with the extremely popular Stonehaven Open Air Pool.
It also looks after 14 leisure and sports centres, 36 sports pavilions as well as eight full-size synthetic pitches.
But just one mid-sized swimming pool costs around £450k to run per year.
Communities committee chairwoman Anne Stirling admitted that there has been a drop in the number of people using the pool facilities.
She said: “People are not using swimming pools the same way that they did so footfall has gone down.”
However, she made it clear that the council won’t consider closing the community assets.
“We have to look at everything but there is no agenda to go to closures,” she stated.
Turriff Kayak Club meets every week at the town’s pool, but other organisations and clubs are being urged to come forward to make use of the facilities.
Ms Stirling said: “We need to get people through the doors to use our facilities, not just for swimming.
“We would like to work with communities to determine what their leisure offering should look like going forward.”
In its brutal budget last March, Aberdeen City Council announced it was closing six libraries.
The decision caused huge uproar across the city, while crime author Stuart MacBride feared it would “impoverish chunks of Aberdeen”.
Aberdeenshire Council has 34 library buildings in its massive estate portfolio.
Is the drastic action seen in the city something that would be considered in the Shire to cut costs?
“We don’t have a closure agenda, we have a modernisation agenda,” Ms Stirling noted.
“We are looking to extend the availability of the library service rather than restrict it.”
Under this programme, the council will look to move services from a more traditional library setting to another suitable site.
For example, the “well past its sell-by date” library cabin in Newtonhill was closed and relocated to the Bettridge Centre.
This has resulted in the library being open for longer and creating better access for users.
The same thing has been done in Mintlaw with the library now available in the MACBI Community Hub.
Aberchirder Library has since closed too but the service has moved to the village primary school.
Meanwhile, Ellon Library will move into the council’s new £11.4 million “civic hub” on the site of the old academy once it’s completed next year.
Ms Stirling added: “There are discussions ongoing with other communities about buildings that are used for library provision that might be better used for other things.”
But libraries are not just for books as they are the venue for various groups and events such as knit and natter, Bookbug and Lego clubs.
The local authority’s two electric mobile libraries will continue to run and may be even busier in the future.
As part of the council’s overall strategy for libraries, outreach points could be set up across the region for the vans to deliver books to residents.
Aberdeenshire Council is responsible for 35 community centres and town halls across the region.
However, it actively keeps an eye on how regularly these buildings are used as well as their condition.
The local authority does this to ensure it is delivering the best services for residents.
But, if demand and usage falls drastically the council may take the decision to declare a building surplus to requirements.
If this happens, the facility would be closed for good which would lead to savings being made from operating and staff costs.
A paper recently went before the communities committee listing a number of buildings that are expected to be deemed surplus in the near future.
These include Blackhills Hall, Macduff Town Hall, Leslie Hall and Lumphanan Hall.
Ms Stirling bluntly told us: “We will not retain assets that we no longer need and are not fit for purpose.”
Last year, Aberdeenshire Council successfully secured a £20 million UK Government Levelling Up fund grant.
The cash will be used to transform two much-loved attractions along the north-east coast.
First up, the Macduff Marine Aquarium will be extended to include a restaurant and outdoor decking for visitors to take in the stunning sea view.
Meanwhile, the disused Arbuthnot House in Peterhead will be converted into a museum, library and cultural hub.
The historic Broad Street building would house the region’s extensive heritage collections and artwork.
But will these projects still go-ahead?
Ms Stirling said that both are currently “progressing” and will be delivered according to the terms of the levelling-up fund.
She also revealed that the council has allocated £8 million to support the two developments.
Before any final decisions are made on the budget setting exercise, the local authority wants to hear the views of its residents.
What leisure services matter the most to you and do you think savings could be made elsewhere?
Visit engage.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/aberdeenshirecouncilbudget-2024-25 to share your views.