Catching up with some magazine reading I read a couple of pieces that illustrate the contrasting approach of local councils towards library closures.
Toby Young writes in The Spectator (£) about the Kensal Rise Library in Queen’s Park which Labour-run Brent Council is proposing to close – blaming central Government cuts..
This cynical ploy is particularly inexcusable in the case of the Kensal Rise Library because there’s a well-organised group of local volunteers in Queen’s Park who’ve offered to take it over.
As part of its ‘consultation’ over the future of this and the five other libraries in the borough threatened with closure, Brent Council invited various local groups to submit proposals as to how they might be saved. The Friends of Kensal Rise Library, a group that includes numerous successful authors as well as lawyers, accountants and businessmen, submitted an 11-page plan detailing how they would reduce the running costs through a combination of fundraising and volunteering. Under their proposal, the cost to the council of running the library for three years would be £163,670, a reduction of its current running costs by two thirds and less than the annual salary of Brent’s chief executive.
The Council should have been delighted. But instead has been thoroughly obstructive:
On Monday, the council produced its considered response in the form of a 178-page ‘supplement’ to … well, it doesn’t say. In addition to having no table of contents and no index, it has no title. It’s just a ‘supplement’. After wading through it, I discovered the proposals are dealt with in ‘Appendix Six’ and it reads like a parody of small-minded local government obstruction. First, it sets out the seven criteria by which all of the proposals are to be judged — and it goes without saying that none of the groups had the slightest awareness of these until now. (Number four is fairly typical: ‘The extent to which the proposal promotes inclusion and diversity.’) Then it painstakingly goes through each of the proposals, including the one from the Friends of Kensal Rise Library, and dismisses them all on the
grounds that they fail to comply with these criteria.
‘CRB check’ and ‘health and safety’ are mentioned frequently . The Friends plan is felt suspect as it is "silent" on the issue of "ensuring that the stock does not include… offensive or racist material." Toby feels this case is so outrrageous that Ed Vaizey should intervene using powers under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act.
Then I read an article (£) in the Local Government Chronicle by Cllr Patricia Birchley, the Cabinet Member for adults and families, in Conservative-run Buckinghamshire County Council. Three libraries that they would have had to close but "communities galvanised into action and developed sound business cases to run their library themselves."
These libraries have since flourished, tailoring their service to meet local needs, increasing their footfall, raising their own funds, and manning the library with volunteers – all at a third of what it would cost the council to deliver.
Two libraries have stuck with the traditional approach increasing book stock, increasing opening hours and adding community activities into the mix. However, West Wycombe community library has gone further, selling locally produced items and serving tea and cake to passing tourists.
Whilst still benefitting as part of the county council library network, these community libraries have been able to develop their own identity and local focus. In light of these successes, we believe that other communities in Buckinghamshire can be inspired by this more ‘hands on’ approach to re energise their library by working with the council to develop new and sustainable partnerships.
To explore this further, we have just completed a major consultation covering proposals for 14 more community libraries. We’re not hiding from the reality that most people would rather their library stay as it is. But there is a growing understanding that things can’t stay the same and the council is up-front in stating that ‘no change’ is simply not an option.
In many locations, Friends of the Library groups have sprung into action, looking at the proposals and responding positively.
So the willingness to embrace the Big Society exists among the people of Brent as well as of Bucks. The difference is the former are faced with a council that seeks to thwart them – the latter with a Council that embraces and assists their initiative.