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Free use of library computers set for return after charges failed to bring in the cash

Cambridgeshire councillors are set to discuss withdrawing charges for computer access in libraries just a year after they were introduced.

Using computers at March library could soon be free of charge again.
Using computers at March library could soon be free of charge again.

Tuesday's (12) highway and community infrastructure committee is set to discuss a report recommending the £1 an hour charge be removed.

The move comes after the charges were criticised at a review in September when they were labelled a "false economy" by members who were horrified to learn user numbers had plummeted by more than 50 per cent.

Charging for computer access was introduced on May 1, 2018. A charge of £1 per hour is made after an initial 30 minutes that is free for all users. Children up to 18 years of age continue to access the library computers free of charge.

Use of computers at Wisbech library could soon be free of charge again.
Use of computers at Wisbech library could soon be free of charge again.

In September it was predicted the scheme could raise a projected £16,000 in a year out of a forecast income of £108,000.

Councillor Lorna Dupre put a motion to have the charges withdrawn at that time but lost the vote and it was agreed to bring the matter back to committee in six months' time when more data on the effects of the charges would be available.

However, a report to Tuesday's meeting shows the situation was even worse than predicted in the autumn with the income expected to be just £9,041 by the end of this month.

Tuesday's recommendation to withdraw the computer charge comes in response to continued monitoring of the situation by officers since September, as well as feedback collected in a customer survey and a detailed analysis of the anticipated income.

If this proposal is agreed, computers will be free for all to use all the time from April 1 and the library service will look at how to manage demand for computers so they are available for those who most need them. Furthermore, an upgrade of the 330 library computers is set to be rolled out later this year to improve the service for all.

Councillor Mathew Shuter. (7007099)
Councillor Mathew Shuter. (7007099)

Councillor Mathew Shuter chairman of the highways and community infrastructure committee, said: “The decision to introduce a charge for computer access was not taken lightly but we have to look at all avenues to ensure fair access to our limited resources as well as to generate more income.

“This was a difficult decision to make and exactly why we asked officers to review this change by asking for a more detailed analysis of the data. It is encouraging to see people continue to use computers in libraries for a shorter time, leaving the machines for those who most need it, which was one of the main reasons for the charge in the first place.

“However, we are listening to residents and customers with the feedback we’ve received which leads us to suggest withdrawing the charge altogether and seek other ways to prioritise access and generate income.

“We will continue to ensure our libraries are at the heart of our communities and will now look at other approaches to secure their long term financial sustainability.

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