JUST 23 rain-soaked protesters gathered outside the Town Hall yesterday ahead of what was the most important meeting on the future of Bolton’s library service so far.

They trudged into the Festival Hall at 10am for the public meeting of Bolton Council’s full executive.

Inside, perhaps expecting a bigger turnout, staff had laid out 108 seats in the public gallery.

There were seven opposition councillors, six members of the Labour executive, five council officers, four journalists, three television cameras, two council press officers and one chief executive.

And it was that one person, Sean Harriss, who spoke first, explaining the results of the council’s £4,500 public consultation, a process the local authority was legally obliged to carry out.

Mr Harriss showed no sign of nerves throughout his 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, in which he told councillors the £400,000 of cuts would still deliver a “comprehensive library service”.

He was heckled on more than one occasion by Tom Hanley, the chairman of the Save Bolton Libraries Campaign.

The most vocal of the campaigners was warned by the council leader, Cllr Cliff Morris.

In a meeting which lasted close to two hours, not a lot, or at least not much new, was said.

There was political posturing, plenty of name-calling, a bit of metaphorical finger pointing, but nothing in the way of real debate.

The Lib Dems, two in number and both up for re-election next year, sought to distance themselves from the Tories.

Leader Roger Heyes said: “We all knew there would be library closures as a result of the budget vote in February.

There was no move to amend the budget from the Conservatives then.”

Cllr David Wilkinson rubbished criticism of the consultation. “If we the council had not carried out a consultation, then we would have been criticised,” he said, later adding the meeting had been “predictable”

in its outcome.

Mr Harriss told the meeting replacing paid staff with volunteers could leave the council open to legal challenge.

But Tory leader Cllr John Walsh poured cold water on this suggestion, adding: “Let’s be clear, what we have put forward is for volunteers to support the service, not run the service. Conservatives also asked why the £1 million Manchester Airport dividend could not be used to save the libraries.

Labour pointed out the Government’s council tax freeze, which will cost the council £1.5 million, had already wiped out the airport money.

Labour’s head of children’s services, Cllr Nick Peel, added the Tories were “completely out of touch with reality”.

He said libraries were the only issue they were campaigning on and would have welcomed them campaigning against cuts to children’s services.

Conservatives, however, also claimed the council would have faced similar measures under a Labour government, a point the council’s ruling Labour party accepts.

But Cllr Morris maintains the Coalition has made its cuts too quickly and too deeply.

Cllr Andy Morgan said: “I think it’s wearing a bit thin, blaming cuts on this Government.

“Labour have got to start being straight with people and acknowledge the part they played in the financial crisis.”

In the end, the council leader proposed approval of the libraries report and his executive voted unanimously in favour, to loud calls of “shame on you” from the gallery.

The barely audible final word came from Cllr Walsh, who called the decision of the executive to scrutiny, in effect giving the five libraries a stay of execution.

Their fate will be discussed again on Monday and then, perhaps finally, by full council next Wednesday, when it is expected the ruling Labour group will force the proposals through.