Why Councillor Noble’s Buckinghamshire comparison doesn’t add up

When faced with criticism of her plans to withdraw funding to libraries across Gloucestershire and turn them over to ‘community ownership’, Councillor Noble has referred to four volunteer-run libraries in Buckinghamshire as ‘evidence’ that her scheme will be ‘a success’:

“Community-run libraries work. At the ones already up and running in Buckinghamshire, visitor numbers have increased, opening hours have been extended and there’s actually a waiting list of volunteers” (Cotswold Journal – 3rd Dec 2010)

But, this comparison is very misleading, as there are key differences between the community libraries scheme in Buckinghamshire and that proposed for Gloucestershire:

  • Different contexts:

Buckinghamshire’s four volunteer-run libraries are in largely affluent areas. Indeed, a volunteer from one is quoted in the national press as saying; “Our area is a prosperous one with many able, retired folk who are keeping it afloat by spending a lot of their own money.” To compare this situation to that of Hesters Way, Matson or Cinderford for instance – relatively deprived areas whose libraries face closure under this scheme, indicates a lack of understanding of these areas and the role of their libraries within them.

  • Different set-up and running models:

Buckinghamshire’s four volunteer-run libraries remain part of the public library network. Volunteers are able to access the central library service’s online management system which tracks loans, orders and fines. This will not be the case in Gloucestershire where volunteers will be unable to access central management systems, and instead will have to purchase a system for themselves at considerable expense. Access to the council’s library management system is described by the Chair of one volunteer-run Buckinghamshire library as amongst the things needed “to make this work”. Volunteers in Buckinghamshire’s community libraries also receive ongoing support from professional central library staff, whereas under GCC’s plans, advice and training for volunteers would only be available outside an unspecified ‘transition period’ if purchased from the central service.

  • Different funding:

Libraries in Buckinghamshire have signed a three-year deal with the council, involving the council paying an annual grant which will provide the libraries’ ‘core funding’. This has been agreed as the volunteers found that they were unable to raise sufficient funds by themselves. Under GCC’s plans voluntary groups will have to bid for a one-off grant from a total ‘pot’ of £50,000. If voluntary groups in each of the 11 areas where libraries are earmarked for ‘community ownership’ apply, as Councilor Noble claims they will, this will result in a grant of less than £5,000 each. All other start-up and ongoing running costs will have to be funded by voluntary groups themselves – which, as the experience in Buckinghamshire has shown, is no mean feat.

Councillor Noble has additionally cited Woodberry Down Library in Hackney as an example of a volunteer-run library in a deprived area. Again though, the comparison is misleading as this library receives extensive support from Hackney Council. Start-up costs were funded by a £61,000 government ‘regeneration’ grant, and council staff support and train volunteers, and manage the recruitment of new volunteers (including arranging CRB checks). Like in Buckinghamshire, this library has access to the IT infrastructure of the council library service, and remains part of the public library network, none of which will be the case in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, the library at Woodberry Down was set-up within a community which had not had a library for over a decade. This is a completely different scenario to removing support from existing popular libraries as per GCC’s plans, thereby attempting to ‘strong arm’ the community into taking ownership. Less a ‘community offer’ than an ultimatum!

We call on Councillor Noble to publicly retract the misleading comparison of community libraries in Buckinghamshire and Woodberry Down with proposals for Gloucestershire, which have been made in the local media, at Council, and in correspondence with concerned members of the electorate. These libraries receive a level of funding and support from their local councils which far exceeds what will be available to the 11 proposed community libraries in Gloucestershire. These comparisons are meaningless, and offer no assurance to residents concerned at the potential closure of their libraries.

The plans for Gloucestershire’s libraries have no precedent and are therefore a risky experiment. When will Councillor Noble admit that these plans are ill-thought out and untested, and that her confidence in their ‘success’ has no basis in evidence?

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