Central Library could move into former Debenhams in Broadmead, suggests council leader

The library service’s budget in Bristol is proposed to be slashed by about a third

Central Library could move into the old Debenhams building in Broadmead, Bristol City Council leaders have suggested.

But bosses say that relocating the historic library on College Green to somewhere else in the city centre is “just an idea” at this stage as part of a raft of cuts as the local authority faces the “brutal” task of finding £45.7million of savings over the next five years to balance its books.

The library service’s budget is proposed to be slashed by about a third – £1.4million from last year’s funding of £4.6million.

City Hall chiefs told a council meeting that even without the financial black hole facing the organisation – between £37.5million and £87.6million from 2023/24 to 2027/28 – escalating energy costs mean they don’t have the money to keep all 27 Bristol libraries open.

However, deputy mayor Cllr Craig Cheney said that, like in 2018 when library closures were proposed and later scrapped amid huge public opposition and an unexpected rise in income from business rates, they would abandon the idea again if they “suddenly found we had another £30million”. Opposition councillors warned the cuts would be “deeply damaging” and could “hollow out a lot of communities”.

Labour cabinet member for public health and communities Cllr Ellie King told a budget scrutiny meeting on Tuesday (November 22): “This hurts, and this hurts everyone – this is not a happy place to be in at all but this is where we are.

“Central Library is a very interesting proposal that warrants looking into seriously. I get that it’s a much-loved, beautiful building. It’s part of our heritage and very important to a lot of people.

“However, there are opportunities to support this council by moving the service. What if we moved it into the lower ground floor of this building [City Hall]? You can’t say that would get a different footfall because it’s a couple of metres away, and it would be free to use. What if we moved it to Broadmead, into the ground floor of Debenhams?

Debenhams in Broadmead may be an option for a new site for Central Library

“Imagine the footfall you would get there that is different to the ones you get there, because I know the people who shop around here and the people who shop around there and I’m interested in getting the kids who shop around there into libraries.”

She said that if cuts were not made to libraries, they would have to be made elsewhere, and that 27 libraries for a population of nearly 500,000 was an “incredible amount” compared with other cities.

Management of place director Patsy Mellor said: “The energy costs of the 27 libraries themselves mean we cannot operate within our budget. Even without trying to contribute to the council’s budget issues as a whole, we already have an existing problem trying to limp along.

“What we would hope for is a better service with more standardised opening hours. We don’t know where or when yet, this is why we are going out to consultation and we will  do a more in-depth consultation. I take solace in the fact that rather than limp, this is an opportunity to improve the service.”

She said the council had not yet spoken to organisations about taking over the Grade I-listed Central Library building, which it shares with Cathedral Primary School.

Ms Mellor said: “Cllr King mentioned Broadmead – all buses go to Broadmead but they don’t go to College Green, so it would be more accessible. At this stage it’s just an idea but we don’t have a capital budget to give that building the care it needs.”

Cllr Cheney said: “It’s very painful to me to even be considering it, but this is where we are. Compare that to renegotiating care packages for disabled children – what would you rather have?

“We consulted on this previously. The reason we then did nothing was because cutting libraries should be one of the absolute last resorts for this council.”

Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Weston told members: “This will be deeply damaging to communities. Co-location might work but otherwise you’re going to be hollowing out a lot of communities. This fills me with abject horror.”

Debenhams closed its department store in Broadmead in May last year along with 48 other branches across the UK after the retailer went into administration.

The store appears set for a mixed-use development with potential for residential space - with Mayor Marvin Rees describing it as one of a number of ‘really exciting’ projects in his State of the City Address. In the speech

It has been taken over by a London-based firm called Horsefair 33 Ltd. The company is controlled by property giants AEW UK, which is one of the biggest landlords in the city centre.

AEW UK has not yet spoken publicly on its ambitions for the landmark site despite work taking place to strip the building of its retail fittings. But slightly more on what is planned has come from Mr Rees, who has been in discussions with the new owners.

Speaking at his State of the City Address, he said that the company planned for a mixed-use development - a project which comprises of a mixture of uses on one site. Uses can include leisure, retail, office space and residential.