COUNCIL chiefs have agreed to mediation talks with unions in a bitter row over plans to close libraries in Southampton and replace librarians with volunteers.

Unions yesterday handed over a 4,500-name petition demanding a rethink over the closures in Millbrook and Thornhill as library staff went on strike for the fourth time. Most of the city’s libraries closed from midday as staff walked out and later lobbied ruling Tory councillors as they arrived for a full council meeting at the Civic Centre. Barriers were put up to stop angry library staff getting too close to councillors.

Phil Wood, Unison regional director for the south-east of England, told councillors the cutbacks would not just hit library services but “the standard of living for people in the city”, particularly the elderly and jobless.

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City librarian Bob Cole said librarians felt “insulted” by the “ill thought out cost-cutting measure” to axe seven posts and bring in volunteers.

Labour leisure spokesman Derek Burke called the proposal “dangerous” and “crazy” and urged Tories to get back around the table.

They received applause from a public gallery packed with scores of striking library staff and their supporters.

Unison members, who make up nine out of ten library staff, are boycotting any work connected with the introduction of new volunteers.

Library boss councillor John Hannides said he was happy to take up the offer, accepted a month ago by Unison, to join talks with conciliation service ACAS. But he then hit out at unions and opposition councillors for peddling misleading claims about the council’s library plans.

He said the Tory administration, which came to power three years ago, had invested more in libraries than had been spent in the past 20 years.

He said new technology and “well-trained volunteers”

were helping to modernise the city’s libraries but that professional librarians were at the forefront of his vision for a more efficient service.

He insisted no librarians were being made redundant and that Millbrook and Thornhill libraries were being demolished to make way for “widely supported” regeneration projects.

He said the council was working with the community in Thornhill to create a local volunteer library service.

Housing boss Cllr Peter Baillie added he “expected” a library to return in Millbrook in one of the retail units earmarked for Cumbrian Way.

Earlier this year campaigners fighting to save the Millbrook library presented a 2,000-name petition to the council.