COUNCIL chiefs have today approved £1.7m cuts to Hampshire libraries including the end of the mobile library service.

But small libraries could be saved from closure if new technology and other efficiencies are successful, Hampshire County Council said.

Cllr Andrew Gibson, executive member for culture, recreation and countryside, said: “I don’t think you’ll see me next year closing libraries.”

He approved a four-year strategy which will see mobile libraries shut in June, saving £360,000 per year, but deferred a decision on whether to cut the book fund by a quarter.

Around 20 protesters rallied outside the council’s Winchester base this afternoon, brandishing anti-austerity placards and chanting “keep our libraries”.

Sean Cannon, secretary of Unite the Union's Southampton community branch, said: “I don’t feel that when a council has reserves approaching £400m, that you can justify making a saving of £1.7m when it’s going to have such a devastating impact on the library service.”

Demonstrators came from Save Lyndhurst Library, Unite and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.

The council will review the viability of 20 smaller libraries – including Fair Oak, West End, Lyndhurst, Alresford and Bishop's Waltham – before deciding on their future by the end of 2017. Some could be closed or run by volunteers.

The strategy approved today will see £500,000 per year reinvested from the book fund into technology, building sharing and other changes. It is hoped this will widen access by allowing groups to access buildings outside of staffed hours.

Cllr Gibson told the decision meeting that this could prevent the need to shut libraries, depending on the severity of future Government cuts.

He said: “I’m not happy about the cuts that we’ve got. The next few years it looks as though the Government is going to cut even more from Hampshire’s budget.

“Whether you like it or not, and we can ignore the cuts, but I only have a certain budget with which to play and what I’m trying to do is get the best value for money with that.”

The mobile library costs £161 per active user each year, according to figures shown to the meeting. This is more than four times the cost of normal libraries, at £38 per user, and more than home visits at £118.

Meanwhile, public opposition has prompted a rethink on whether to transfer specialist collections to other providers or permanently cut the £2m book fund by £500,000 from 2020. These decisions are now due next year, a council spokesman said.

Nearly 10,000 people and organisations responded to the proposals in the last three months, one of the largest responses the council has ever had.

One in five supported keeping the service as it is, according to analysis commissioned by the county council, with nearly 40 per cent opposing closures.

More than 60 per cent said the service required change to meet changing demand, while a quarter of respondents highlighted specific ways the proposals would hit the elderly, families, the disabled or people without cars.

Most respondents said the mobile service, mostly used by over-60s, should close so long as alternatives were in place.

Those unable to access a library can have books delivered by volunteers and learn how to use online services for free.