Yesterday evening (9th December), representatives of Gloucestershire County Council (including Council leader Mark Hawthorne) met with voluntary and community groups to discuss their taking over of public services (including libraries) under the ‘Big Community Offer’. Chris, who attended the event, was kind enough to send us this report of proceedings:
I attended the Council’s ‘Big Community Offer’ meeting in Hucclecote last night (ok – under somewhat false pretences, but I was quite honest and open with the people I spoke to that I felt the proposals were wrong but wanted to find out more before making up my mind).
Mark Hawthorne addressed the whole audience at the start. He said he wanted feedback on the Council’s plans, but then gave us no chance to ask questions! We were split into ‘breakout’ groups to discuss the particular areas we were interested in – so the council staff in attendance from the various services (like Sue Laurence – Assistant Head of Libraries and Information Services) ended up taking the flak!
In the discussion of libraries, the Council representative outlined the start-up costs for services they could provide to groups wanting to run community libraries, and yes, they do exceed the amount groups are likely to get as grants, so additional funds will have to be sourced by groups to cover start-up payments to the Council, as well as the ongoing running costs we already knew about.
Several questions were put to Sue Laurence to which she had no real answer.
- She was asked about the criteria which would be used by the Council to assess whether groups were qualified/suitable to run libraries – she said there will be one, but they don’t know what it is yet.
- She was asked where stock that had been donated, particularly relating to local studies and reference collections (for example, in Cinderford which holds a large stock of valuable documentation relating to the history of the Forest of Dean) would be kept – the answer was they don’t know, but it will be moved (probably in the first year) away from community run libraries.
- She was asked why community run libraries should be asked to pay over £1,000 per year to have books delivered from the main library network, given that the deliveries were being used by the Council as ‘evidence’ for them still providing a county-wide service! – she conceded this policy ‘may have to be looked at again’!
- She was asked what would happen to existing computer facilities. The plan is for community run libraries to pay the Council £900 to provide one computer (without internet access included) – again given that one of the main points of providing this is that the Council will be able to say customers will be able to access the main library catalogue, it seems hard to understand why community groups are paying for it. There didn’t seem to be any answer about what will happen with the computers already in the libraries transferred to community ownership. Someone pointed out that the Council has just paid a lot of money to refurbish a computer suite (not sure where, Matson possibly?) and it would seem a false economy to remove it – there was a vague comment that maybe they might remain in place…
My final comment to Sue Laurence was that I actually felt a little (but only a little!) bit sorry for her. Listening to her it is clear she doesn’t really believe in what she is trying to sell to the rest of us.
One or two of the local politicians are brave enough to admit the plans are ‘cuts’. However, Councillor Hawthorne repeatedly tries to tell us that the library service will be ‘better’ as a result of these changes! In his speech to a group of people who were there because of changes to Youth Services and Libraries he talked for about fifteen minutes about other services that won’t be cut by the Council, and spent only about five minutes on the ‘opportunities’ that are now available to community groups.
Judging by the comments made to me, and the questions asked of Council staff, many of the ‘partners’ they want to work with seemed to agree that there are large areas where the Council simply don’t know what they are going to do, and yet they are trying to push ahead regardless.
As a result of what I heard at this meeting, I am convinced that the call on the county-wide petition for a review of the Council’s plans for the library service is justified.
Chris also heard Councillor Hawthorne talking about tonight’s (10th December) public meeting in Cinderford:
He said he was worried about attending this meeting because he’d originally believed it would be a meeting with a few local politicians – and now it was turning into a political rally where he would be forced to answer questions from the public (God forbid that he might have to speak to the proles!)…anyway he said ‘Of course it won’t be local people causing a fuss’ – so I interrupted and said that I thought he was wrong, that he might be underestimating the strength of feeling in the areas affected. He and his friends explained how you always get ‘rent-a-mob’ being bussed into ‘this sort of thing’ from outside!
Good to hear Councillor Hawthorne and co are treating the concerns of the electorate with such respect and consideration – this arrogant and dismissive attitude towards the very real and reasonable concerns of Gloucestershire residents really beggars belief!