Thank you for the reply by Peter Rushbrook dated 21 December 2010 to our letter of 19 November 2010 about the disproportionate and damaging cuts to Gloucestershire Library Service which, we consider, breach the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act. We understand that this is a holding reply, but it contains much valuable and reassuring information.
Your letter is correct in stating that Gloucestershire County Council’s proposals “remain subject to consultation”. However, we remain concerned that final decisions will be made by the council in February 2011 ie next month. After that will it be too late for DCMS to review the situation in Gloucestershire? If so, would it be more appropriate for DCMS to announce sooner rather than later that it intends to look closely at Gloucestershire?
We accept absolutely the point that not all library closures necessarily imply a breach of the 1964 Act. In our original letter we provided objective information about the degree to which Gloucestershire is apparently intent on making damaging cuts, so that successful and completely viable middle range libraries like Churchdown and Nailsworth, loaning 80,000 items a year, face relegation to 3 hours a week pick up points, or, like Cinderford, face closure.
We would now like to address the issues relating to the following statement from your letter – “It is important that authorities have a strategy, that they have considered the needs of their communities and that they have consulted local people.”
Gloucestershire has produced a new library strategy, which we sent a link to you in our original letter. However, we can find no evidence of any consideration of the needs of local communities, and there is very little evidence of any real consultation with local people. This certainly applies to the period before the publication of the proposals, and, in any meaningful way, continues to apply even now.
The new library strategy is based primarily on achieving a geographical spread of libraries. There is no evidence that the authors of that document (who, we understand, were NOT professional librarians) gave any value or consideration to the social impact on individual communities of their proposals. There is certainly no information of this kind in the strategy itself. Indeed, were it given any credence it is difficult to imagine that EVERY disadvantaged areas of the county would be reduced to 3 hours a week “library link” or to community funded and run “library” to which the alternative is closure.
For those who know the county it would be obvious that the social impact on poorer areas like Hester’s Way in Cheltenham, Matson and Tuffley in Gloucester, Cinderford in the Forest of Dean, and Stonehouse near Stroud has not been considered. Nor has the effect on rural isolation of the complete withdrawal of the rural mobile library service. Add to this the axing of the Home Link service serving residential homes for elderly people and Share a Book serving children under 6 in disadvantaged areas. In our view no “consideration (at all) of the needs of these communities” has been made, or, as far as we can ascertain, is being made.
The pre-proposal consultation centred completely on budget issues, so that those who undertook this rather demanding online exercise were asked simply to choose whether to cut libraries or other council services to balance the council’s books. Perfectly reasonable in a way, but should there not have been an exercise to establish a whole range of issues about how people use libraries or what they value most from the library service? For instance, no attempt was made to establish what people use libraries for, when they use them, how they travel to them, whether they use more than one library, or even what kind of people use them. (Some library authorities collect this survey information annually, but Gloucestershire has not done so for a number of years). Even more importantly, consultation should have included surveys of how people view funding or running their own libraries, or having fewer libraries. This was not undertaken.
Had such work been undertaken, the resulting proposals may have been very different. For instance, the proposals seriously disadvantage working people. The intention is for only 2 libraries in the entire county to be open after 6pm and again only 2 libraries to be open on Saturday afternoon! Considering the needs of local people? Efficient? Comprehensive? We don’t think so.
Even following the publication of the proposals these issues are not being considered or addressed.
In terms of the post-proposal consultation, there is little evidence that councillors are interested in the community response. For instance, the proposals were made public on the county council’s website and in the press on 12 November. However, libraries were not allowed to display anything other than a bland “cuts have to be made” statement, so that customers visiting a local library would have no idea what was intended for their local library. Only now, nearly 2 months later (and more than half way through the consultation period), are libraries beginning to display this information after we raised this with the county council’s libraries portfolio holder before Christmas. Library staff have also been told not to raise concerns personally or with customers, and believe that they are under threat of disciplinary action if they do.
Similarly, the original 6 community drop-in consultation meetings planned by the council were all to have taken place in one of only 9 libraries that will remain as “main” libraries offering a full range of services! So none of the 29 communities with library services being significantly reduced or closed would have a consultation meeting! Again we raised this, and now 3 of those communities are having meetings. 3 out of 29! We consider this derisory.
The county council’s own online survey (which basically asks if people can get to a library) does not refers in its summary of proposals to the complete withdrawal of all mobile libraries. Clearly, people using small rural libraries which will be closed might think that a visit to a rural mobile library would be an alternative, but nowhere is the axing of this service mentioned.
The library service in Gloucestershire has taken a 24% cut in funding over the last 2 years (the largest percentage of any county council service) and is now threatened with a further 43% cut (again the highest percentage of any service!). This is, of course, why the impact on library users is so great. Yet the county council states quite clearly in its consultation documentation that “ it is important to note that this consultation (about library cuts) should not be used to explore whether the service change should happen and/or whether the budget for the service should be reduced”. What chance has the service got with this absence of consultation that combines budget and service issues? We consider the two issues to be inextricably linked.
Moreover, it is far from easy for anyone to know about or track down the county council’s current overall budget proposals or their online survey.
We believe that the contents of our first letter about the severity of the proposed cuts, together with the contents of this letter about the lack of real consultation and consideration of individual community needs, should persuade you to undertake a review of the proposals in Gloucestershire. It will be a sad day if you do not.
“Today’s economic challenge means people need library services more than ever, to help them back to work, to access learning and as a central plank of community cohesion” (Ed Vaizey, July 2010).