CITY leaders are to be asked to sign a five-year deal which will see the running of York’s libraries and archives taken over by a social enterprise.

The arrangement, which will transfer library operations to a “community benefit society”, will be the first of its kind in the UK.

The transfer is due to take place on April 1 as City of York Council looks to cut the service’s costs by £450,000 over three years.

The society, Explore Libraries and Archive Mutual, will be mainly funded by the council but will work on an independent basis, jointly owned by staff and residents who will be able to stand for election to its board. It has been supported with £100,000 of funding from the Cabinet Office.

The move has been opposed by unions who have claimed employees will take on the service’s financial risks and raised questions about the enterprise’s business plan and accountability.

The deal is expected to be rubber-stamped next Tuesday by the council’s Labour cabinet, which says Explore – as the mutual will be known – is York’s best chance of preventing library closures.

Every member will have a single vote once they buy a £1 share, although under-16s will have to be involved in other ways as they cannot legally have membership. Library cards will be separate and remain free.

The council is cutting £250,000 from the library services budget during 2013/14 and needs to save a further £150,000 next year and £50,000 in 2015/16.

Coun Sonja Crisp, cabinet member for leisure, culture and tourism, said: “Users shouldn’t notice any difference but, behind the scenes, the society will move into place to help assure the future of the city’s excellent provision, which will continue to be run by expert, paid staff.”

Fiona Williams, head of libraries and archives, said the society would build on existing literacy, employability and digital inclusion work as well as promoting reading.

Library cafes were intended to draw in more income which would be reinvested in the service.

Three non-executive directors – Aviva’s head of direct marketing and trading James Henderson, the University of York’s director of community relations and lifelong learning Lesley Booth, and staff director Victoria Pierce – are already in place.

Nominations are being sought for community directors and expressions of interest can be made at York’s libraries.