On Monday (13th December) evening, Councillor Noble and Sue Laurence (GCC’s ‘Big Community Offer’ Libraries Contact) attended a meeting of Prestbury Parish Council to discuss proposals for Prestbury’s library. The meeting was well attended by members of the public – with most being there because of the discussion of the library. Several Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries campaigners attended the meeting, and Demelza has provided this report of proceedings:
Councillor Noble and Sue Laurence arrived late to the meeting, and as she arrived Cllr. Noble even had a little moan about how she has many responsibilities, but that libraries are taking over her life – she’s not the only one!
Cllr. Noble began by addressing the audience about the ‘necessity’ of library cuts, the need to prioritise care for the elderly and vulnerable, and the ‘meeting the challenge’ ‘conversation’ – very similar line to Mark Hawthorne at Cinderford. Sue Laurence then outlined the Council’s plans for Prestbury Library – a ‘Library Link’, retaining an ‘aspect’ of a library service in shared premises with a partner.
The Parish Councillors had first chance to respond. They asked if a partner had come forward and Cllr. Noble confirmed that they had and that the Council was in negotiations with them. She said she couldn’t name the ‘interested party’, which prompted much derision from members of the public, who asked how they could provide feedback on the plans if they weren’t permitted to know who the partner was!? She did confirm that these plans would involve the library leaving its current building, which would then be sold. The Parish Council expressed their disappointment that GCC had begun negotiations with a third party and bypassed the Parish Council. They said that they will do all they can to retain the library in its current premises which are well-loved by the people of Prestbury, and as such, would like to explore the option of ‘community transfer’. In response, Sue Laurence spoke very briefly about the ‘Big Community Offer’.
The floor was opened for questions, and I asked Councillor Noble what assurances she could give the Parish Council that the community transfer option would succeed, given that the community libraries she has repeatedly used for comparison purposes in Buckinghamshire have had to negotiate a new deal with the County Council to provide core funding, as voluntary groups found it impossible to raise the funds by themselves. She answered that GCC would be providing funding to community libraries. I asked if she was referring just to the £2,500 start-up grant, and she said, no, that ongoing support would be provided. When I stated that this is not clear from GCC’s ‘Big Community Offer’ guidance documentation, she said that ‘I needed to look at the latest press release’. She declined to clearly outline the funding arrangements at the meeting itself. I have since looked for said press release on the media section of GCC’s website and it was not there. I have informed Cllr. Noble of this and she has promised to send it on to me.
I then asked about Bucks community libraries’ ability to access the central library management system, which will not be available to community libraries in Gloucestershire. I pointed out that Bucks library volunteers have described this as essential to the smooth running of the service. Sue Laurence said she did not see why this should be the case – so apparently she knows better than volunteers actually running community libraries!
Other attendees commented that Cllr. Noble had spoken a lot about the need to protect the most vulnerable in society, but that the cuts to the libraries would hurt them the most! Councillor David Prince (PAB) mentioned that the library building had a covenant that it had to be used to the benefit of the community, and what impact would this have if the building had to be sold? He received no real response. He also expressed concern that the transfer of a large number of council services to volunteers would place tremendous strain on these individuals, and would likely lead to burn-out and eventual closure of services. Cllr. Noble said that it could work, and that ‘we will either be proved right or we won’t’ – shame it’s our library service she’s gambling with!
I then asked about the charges community groups would have to pay to the County Council to receive services essential to the running of the libraries. Cllr. Noble denied that such charges exist – this contradicts information provided at the ‘Big Community Offer’ meeting last week, where delegates were apparently told there would be costs of £2,000 for a collection of stock, and £900 for access to the electronic library. Sue Laurence did state that community libraries would be charged around £1,000 per year for pick-ups and collections as part of the county-wide loan service, but when I asked if this fee would be payable to the Council she said ‘no’ – who is it payable to then?!
During this exchange with Sue Laurence, Cllr. Noble had been whispering to the Chair. I heard him say ‘do you know her?’ and heard her say ‘Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries’. I was then told that the ‘level of detail’ I was enquiring after was ‘not appropriate for this setting’. But this ‘level of detail’ is entirely appropriate if community groups are to know what they’re getting into by agreeing to take over these services!
Like Mark Hawthorne in Cinderford, Cllr. Noble’s performance at Prestbury was far from convincing. Her responses were defensive, and members of the public told her to watch her tone, and not to ‘look down your nose at me’.
The meeting posed more questions than it answered. Sue Laurence talked about a one-off start-up grant for community groups, but then Cllr. Noble referred to ongoing funding, and answered ‘yes’ to a question from a Parish Councillor as to whether there would be year-on-year support available. There also seemed to be some inconsistency between information provided at the ‘Big Community Offer’ meeting around services community libraries would need to purchase from the Council, and statements made at Prestbury. When I sought clarity on these issues, I was referred to a press release which is not currently available for public viewing on the GCC website, and was chastised for seeking an ‘inappropriate level of detail’!
It was also stated that the total running costs of Prestbury Library were £64,000 per year. It has emerged that this is a significant underestimation, as this figure does not include books and other media and IT costs. This error has been pointed out to Cllr. Noble and we await her response – I wonder if a similar mistake has been made with other libraries destined for ‘community transfer’?
Community groups are being asked to take on major responsibilities under the ‘Big Community Offer’, and yet the information needed to make an informed decision around their capability to fulfil this responsibility, is not being presented in a clear and open manner. Why should community groups and concerned members of the public be told to look at a press release to learn exactly how community libraries will be funded? – Cllr. Noble should have been prepared to clearly explain crucial points like this at the meeting!