Cllr Peter Craske is the Cabinet Member for Places on Bexley Council.
When the Post Office in one of our town centres, Crayford, closed down, we had an idea – let’s try and get it re-opened in the town’s library. So we did. In the first month of the Post Office opening, the number of items borrowed from the library increased by a staggering 21 per cent, a trend that has continued. In Welling, the top floor of the library was just sitting there empty. Now it is the home of “The Workary”, a hub for small businesses and start-ups, renting out space to work from.
In both cases, the Council now generates an income that it didn’t have before, from the rent. Like everyone else in Local Government, we’ve had to make big changes as a result of the financial situation that has affected us all, to libraries, as well as to other services. But rather than rushing around panicking and, for example, just closing down a few libraries, as some authorities have done, we set out a five year strategy for the service.
And here we are, five years later. We have the same number of libraries, but it’s a service, which in the last year alone, has seen a four per cent increase in the number of visitors – and a five per cent increase in the number of items being borrowed. We’re about to stage our third literary festival, which last year, welcomed 3,000 attendees to over 100 events.
Half of our 12 libraries are now run by local community groups which have been so successful they have more members than when they were Council libraries. It’s nearly four years since they launched and all of them are now firmly established at the heart of the communities they serve. They put on a whole range of events, from cinema nights, to fitness classes, to events tackling loneliness. They have coffee shops, serve afternoon teas, and stage open mic nights.
The one in my one ward, Blackfen Community Library, welcomed over 700 people for the switching on of the Christmas lights, with all sorts of events taking place during the day. Bostall Community Library took off to such an extent that their group took over the running of another library – and they had the brilliant idea to become a place for parcels to be delivered to and collected from.
Success breeds success, and Council libraries have learned lots from community libraries – and community libraries have learned lots from council libraries.
We trialled the “Libraries At Night” programme, so instead of the buildings being empty at night, we opened them up for live music or comedy nights.
In 2021, Sidcup’s library will move from a building reaching the end of its life to share a new home with a new arthouse cinema – and with the cinema being open in the evening, so will the library. And in Thamesmead, we’re building a new library with views that will look out across Southmere Lake.
Topping this off is the fact that 94 per cent of Bexley’s library users rate the service as good or very good.
The reasons for this success are clear. It’s built on the principle of taking a long term strategic view, looking ahead five years and beyond, constantly reviewing what you do and how and why you do it, modernising, being bold and innovative, and not being afraid to take risks.
To have such a high satisfaction rating for our libraries is not an accident.