Losing the plot in local libraries

October 05, 2012 11:54 AM

Saving money while running local libraries effectively seems to be beyond some councils in Surrey and south London.

Surrey County Council is in a sorry mess with its ‘Community Partnered Libraries’ policy. Last year, the council told users of ten smaller libraries, such as Stoneleigh and Ewell Court in Epsom, that their paid staff must be replaced by volunteers to cut costs. For months, volunteers were scrambled in hopes of keeping their libraries open. In May this year, campaigners SLAM (Surrey Libraries Action Movement) took the council to the High Court where a judge declared its plan unlawful—it had given insufficient thought to the effect of the change on children, the disabled and the elderly. Surrey incurred legal costs of £85,000. Undeterred, it set up the required equalities training for volunteers. Then in May, Councillor Helyn Clack admitted that despite cost-saving being the core justification for the plan, ‘there are no expected annual savings as a result of the community partnered libraries proposals.’  The council has pushed through the policy regardless.

Local residents feel they've been hoodwinked. Says Mike Alsop, chairman of SLAM, ‘Library after library has come out and asked for changes to the policy so that they can make it work but they have all been ignored.’  Thanks to the council's hazy objectives and failure to listen, policy-making for a key community service has ended in acrimony, making it needlessly hard to move on and develop a library model that can be supported by all.

Croydon Borough Council hasn't done much better with Upper Norwood Joint Library at Crystal Palace. Outstandingly well supported in a district where five boroughs converge, Upper Norwood Library has been funded jointly by Croydon and neighbouring Lambeth Councils and their forerunners since 1898. It has its own joint committee and operates independently of the library services of the two parent boroughs. Two years ago, a party political squabble broke out.  Croydon Council allegedly stacked the joint committee with majority Conservative councillors whose wards were outside Upper Norwood. Labour Lambeth thereupon boycotted two AGMs and Croydon declared the historic joint agreement at an end. So much for good governance in delivering a publicly funded service. Now, despite an earlier pledge to match Lambeth's contribution, Croydon is offering an annual grant of £75,000—£112,000 less that it currently spends and £95,000 less than Lambeth. Campaigners hoping to keep the heavily-used library open have set up a trust to take control in April next year.

By contrast, Lambeth Council carried out exemplary consultation before giving the go-ahead in July to its ‘Cooperative Libraries Plan’ whereby it will continue to fund the borough's ten libraries (and Upper Norwood), staffed by paid professionals. Friends of Lambeth Libraries chairwoman Laura Swaffield told the council, ‘We are delighted that you have listened to what we have been telling you.’ The council has even opened a new library in Clapham complete with medical centre, cafe, internet zone and community rooms, paid for by the sale of flats in the development. Lambeth is re-thinking the role of local government as the hub of a Cooperative Councils Network which, according to council leader Steve Reed, resembles a ‘think tank that actually does things’--including planning to reduce council staff by a third and office space by half to cut £4.5 million a year from its accommodation costs.

Even Croydon Council is thinking afresh. Last year it partnered with Wandsworth Council to put their library services out to tender, with three preferred bidders chosen. One proved to be Wandsworth itself, which plans to create South London Library and Cultural Services, a private company with charitable status. Says Wandsworth library spokesman Councillor Jonathan Cook, ‘If an outsider can do a better job at a lower cost then we will not be afraid to take the first step.’

 Saving money while running local libraries effectively seems to be beyond some councils in Surrey and south London.

Surrey County Council is in a sorry mess with its ‘Community Partnered Libraries’ policy. Last year, the council told users of ten smaller libraries, such as Stoneleigh and Ewell Court in Epsom, that their paid staff must be replaced by volunteers to cut costs. For months, volunteers were scrambled in hopes of keeping their libraries open. In May this year, campaigners SLAM (Surrey Libraries Action Movement) took the council to the High Court where a judge declared its plan unlawful—it had given insufficient thought to the effect of the change on children, the disabled and the elderly. Surrey incurred legal costs of £85,000. Undeterred, it set up the required equalities training for volunteers. Then in May, Councillor Helyn Clack admitted that despite cost-saving being the core justification for the plan, ‘there are no expected annual savings as a result of the community partnered libraries proposals.’  The council has pushed through the policy regardless.

Local residents feel they've been hoodwinked. Says Mike Alsop, chairman of SLAM, ‘Library after library has come out and asked for changes to the policy so that they can make it work but they have all been ignored.’  Thanks to the council's hazy objectives and failure to listen, policy-making for a key community service has ended in acrimony, making it needlessly hard to move on and develop a library model that can be supported by all.

Croydon Borough Council hasn't done much better with Upper Norwood Joint Library at Crystal Palace. Outstandingly well supported in a district where five boroughs converge, Upper Norwood Library has been funded jointly by Croydon and neighbouring Lambeth Councils and their forerunners since 1898. It has its own joint committee and operates independently of the library services of the two parent boroughs. Two years ago, a party political squabble broke out.  Croydon Council allegedly stacked the joint committee with majority Conservative councillors whose wards were outside Upper Norwood. Labour Lambeth thereupon boycotted two AGMs and Croydon declared the historic joint agreement at an end. So much for good governance in delivering a publicly funded service. Now, despite an earlier pledge to match Lambeth's contribution, Croydon is offering an annual grant of £75,000—£112,000 less that it currently spends and £95,000 less than Lambeth. Campaigners hoping to keep the heavily-used library open have set up a trust to take control in April next year.

By contrast, Lambeth Council carried out exemplary consultation before giving the go-ahead in July to its ‘Cooperative Libraries Plan’ whereby it will continue to fund the borough's ten libraries (and Upper Norwood), staffed by paid professionals. Friends of Lambeth Libraries chairwoman Laura Swaffield told the council, ‘We are delighted that you have listened to what we have been telling you.’ The council has even opened a new library in Clapham complete with medical centre, cafe, internet zone and community rooms, paid for by the sale of flats in the development. Lambeth is re-thinking the role of local government as the hub of a Cooperative Councils Network which, according to council leader Steve Reed, resembles a ‘think tank that actually does things’--including planning to reduce council staff by a third and office space by half to cut £4.5 million a year from its accommodation costs.

Even Croydon Council is thinking afresh. Last year it partnered with Wandsworth Council to put their library services out to tender, with three preferred bidders chosen. One proved to be Wandsworth itself, which plans to create South London Library and Cultural Services, a private company with charitable status. Says Wandsworth library spokesman Councillor Jonathan Cook, ‘If an outsider can do a better job at a lower cost then we will not be afraid to take the first step.’

 

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