Over the past months we’ve been working with some grassroots campaigners in Swindon to save some libraries from closure. You would have thought it simple to keep a library open - the ideas are out there - and that if you appealed to the council, negotiated and found a settlement the libraries could remain open.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Read this excellent article from campaigner Shirley Burnham to understand how difficult it is to do anything when we’re trapped in a quangocracy:
A year ago I was simply a friend and member of our much-loved community library and had not heard of the array of government departments, quangos, statutory advisory bodies and professional associations which seem to compete to preside over a declining public library service.
The decision of senior officers to recommend to Swindon Council that up to nine community libraries could be closed or staffed by volunteers has now thrust me into a world of quangocrats, bureaucrats, politicians of all three major parties, local government officials, the Ombudsman and the all-powerful Secretary of State--each of whom might appear in 'Old Town Library The Musical', if Andrew Lloyd-Webber were to write one.
I have had to learn my MLAs from my ACL, DCMS, LGA, SCL and CILIPs. Along the way, I have discovered that some thirty reports have been written about the problems of the public library service in the past ten years and that millions of pounds have been spent on consultants, seminars and conferences. There is much talk of a crisis of leadership.
All this seems very distant from Old Town library, in Swindon.
Residents of Old Town and its environs have a very simple request: to retain our much-loved branch library and its two part-time librarians. We are told that closing the library would save only £23,000 per annum and, disturbingly, it has been alleged on the CILIP website that the recommendation to close the library is linked to efforts to save managerial and other administrative jobs elsewhere in the service.
We have had considerable support from our local MP, national campaigners and from both the national and local media. Highly respected commentators such as Joan Bakewell and Rachel Cooke and several authors have taken up their pen on our behalf. We have submitted a petition, written to the Culture Secretary, held a public meeting addressed by Council officers and an independent consultant and have raised our concerns with ministers, including the Prime Minister at Downing Street. I have received letters from officials which show their CBEs and other impressive honours beside their names.
But we have still not managed to save our library.
We are currently waiting for the Ombudsman to investigate a complaint that the decision to close four Swindon libraries was not based on a properly drawn up plan that was published and discussed and subject to consultation with residents affected by it. The DCMS has set up an inquiry into whether the MLA acted improperly by submitting a confidential critique of the consultant's report requested by Members of Council and there has been a Taxpayers' Alliance FOI Request to the MLA concerning its dealings with Swindon. Most recently, our Council's Lead Member responsible for libraries has been removed from his position on the cabinet.
Sadly, the Council's cabinet, the MLA and the local officers continue to ignore the budget issues which led to the recommendation to close Old Town and other libraries, despite the publication of a consultancy report which identified other ways to make the required savings including cutting excessive management cost. We are also aware that Swindon charges its library service the highest central overhead charge of any unitary authority in the country.
The residents of Old Town, waving but not drowning in this alphabet soup, will continue to fight to save their library and for it to be improved to the benefit of everyone in our community. We are also determined that our excellent library staff should remain in place.
We are not impressed with the actions of our ward councillors, Andy Burnham and his officials at the DCMS, Andrew Motion and the MLA and the senior officers of the council who are employed to serve the residents of Swindon. Here is my message to you:
"We don't want meaningless words, more hot air and yet more reports. We want you to start earning your salaries, allowances and fees; to focus on finding a way to save Old Town library and retain its two part-time librarians. You know that it is not difficult to find a way. You just have to have the will and the residents will cheer you when you make it happen."