The following letter has been sent to all Gloucestershire County Councillors, ahead of a full Council debate and vote on the county-wide petition calling for an independent review of current plans for our public library service on 19th January.
As you may be aware, Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, a group formed by library-using members of the public from across Gloucestershire, recently submitted a county-wide petition to Shire Hall opposing the proposed budget cut of 43% to the library service and calling for an independent review of these proposals. This petition has so far attracted over 10,600 signatures, and continues to grow. A number of other library users’ groups have also been collecting signatures indicating their opposition to cuts to their local library service. As you can see, strength of feeling amongst the Gloucestershire electorate is high, and the issue has attracted a raft of local and national media coverage, including this recent piece by bestselling Gloucestershire-born novelist Joanna Trollope in the Guardian.
Under County Council legislation, a petition attracting more than 5,000 signatures must be debated at Council, including a full vote on the petition’s demands. Outlined below are a number of concerns around the current proposals for Gloucestershire’s public library service, which we hope you will take into account when considering how to vote.
We appreciate that the County Council is in a difficult position following the comprehensive spending review and local government settlement, and we accept that there may be savings to be made within the libraries budget. However, the library service accounts for just 1.45% of the council’s overall spending and has already absorbed budget reductions of 24% over the last two years (the largest percentage of any council service). To make further cuts on the scale proposed (43%) to a well-used (3 million user visits per year) and widely beneficial service is permanently damaging and disproportionate, and will recoup the council only 2.3% of the overall amount it aims to save. The proposed cuts to the library service will be coming in ‘hard and fast’ over two years, rather than the four years allocated for overall budget reductions.
Councillor Hawthorne has argued that any reduction in cuts to the library service budget would negatively impact on the provision of essential services such as adult care. But the whole £2.5 million reduction proposed for the libraries budget represents just 1.5% of the total adult care budget, so any impact would be minimal. This argument also ignores the important role that libraries play in the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our communities, including the elderly and disabled for whom libraries offer respite from social isolation, and access to crucial information and services. The loss of libraries on this scale may well in fact add pressure (and likely costs) to adult care services, as well as to services aimed at other groups for whom the library currently represents a crucial resource; children and young people, low-income families, and the unemployed. The proposed ‘24 hour virtual library’, promoted as a replacement for reduced public library services, will be of scant use to the estimated 4 in 10 people in Gloucestershire who do not have ready access to the internet, many of whom currently rely on their local library to get online.
Cllr. Hawthorne has stated that the majority of savings within the libraries budget are being made through reductions in ‘back office’ services, rather than on ‘the frontline’. While in the percentage terms stated by Cllr. Hawthorne the cuts to frontline staffing represent 28% of the proposed savings, in real-terms this part of the service is hardest hit with a reduction of around £840,000 to £1 million, compared to approximately £780,000 and £325,000 savings in support and development and management budgets respectively. We believe that an existing 60% cut to the book budget will also be maintained under these proposals.
The decision over where libraries will close or suffer severely reduced services has been based on maintaining geographical spread. As far as we can see, no attention has been paid to the social impact of library cuts and closures on communities. As such, areas of the county identified as the most deprived using indices of multiple deprivation (Cinderford, Hesters Way, Matson and Tuffley) are amongst those hardest hit by these proposals; losing their public libraries completely. These are the kinds of areas where the services provided by libraries are at their most valuable. Children in deprived areas are more likely to grow up in bookless households, people are less likely to have ready internet access, unemployment is higher meaning that demand for access to the job-hunting advice and supported internet use provided by trained librarians is greatest, and people are less likely to be able to afford the transport costs associated with accessing one of the nine ‘main’ libraries which will remain under these proposals. The impact on deprived or isolated rural areas (and especially these areas’ elderly and less-mobile residents) will be compounded by the total removal of the mobile library service under these plans. Again, this casts doubts on Cllr. Hawthorne’s assurances that our county’s most vulnerable residents are protected under the proposed budget.
There are also serious concerns about the consultation process around library cuts. The low response rate to the initial ‘meeting the challenge’ consultation (completed by less than half the number of people who have now signed the county-wide petition calling for a review of the proposals), and the simplistic nature of questioning within this exercise has been raised by concerned residents. The value of ongoing consultation activities is also questionable. Only 4 out of the 29 communities across the county whose libraries will be directly affected by these plans have been offered a ‘drop-in’ consultation meeting. As far as we can see, no consultation is taking place around the complete loss of the mobile library service, which is not even mentioned in the information accompanying the library consultation survey. Until very recently, the information provided in libraries themselves was also inadequate, and library staff have been effectively banned from discussing the impact of the cuts with their customers, under threat of disciplinary action. In short, we have no confidence in the current consultation process or its potential to adequately reflect the views of the people of Gloucestershire.
Cllrs. Noble and Hawthorne have stated that no libraries will close if communities step forward to run them. However, we believe that voluntary groups, parish councils and the wider community in affected areas are not being provided with the clear and frank information needed to make an informed decision over their capacity to sustainably run a library. Cllrs. Noble and Hawthorne have repeatedly made reference to existing volunteer-run libraries in Buckinghamshire as indication that their plans will be a success. However, the Chair of one such library in Buckinghamshire has expressed his strong disapproval of being used as an example in this way. He is adamant that the very specific circumstances of his local community (a largely affluent, well-educated, retired-professional population, with business and management skills, and the capacity to invest a lot of time and money) is needed for a scheme of this kind to work. Needless to say, a number of the Gloucestershire communities whose libraries are ear-marked for ‘community transfer’ do not fit this profile. He has also expressed strong reservations around the long-term sustainability of volunteer-run libraries, even when these circumstances are met.
Another key difference between the Buckinghamshire example and the proposals made for Gloucestershire is access to the central library management system. This is available to volunteers in Buckinghamshire libraries, but will not be in Gloucestershire. Cllr. Hawthorne has dismissed concerns around this issue, but an inability to link to the county-wide library computer network would mean that many functions currently undertaken with ease would become time consuming, inefficient or impossible for library volunteers, leading to a severe curtailment in the range and quality of services available to library-users in these communities.
Finally, serious concerns remain over the legality of the current proposals under the Public Libraries and Museum Act 1964, which compels local authorities to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service. Cllr. Noble has publicly stated that the proposals for Gloucestershire are not in contravention of the Act, but it has emerged that this assertion was based purely on verbal advice. Given that five former Gloucestershire senior librarians have publicly questioned these proposals’ compliance with the Act, and that the issue is currently under national legal debate, we feel that Cllr. Noble’s basing of her statement on informal, non-accountable verbal advice of this kind is inadequate. Elsewhere in England, moves are underway to bring legal challenges against authorities believed to be in contravention of the Act, and it is worth noting that Council Cabinet Members are legally responsible for their actions if measures they have passed are found to be in contravention of the Act.
We hope that this letter has gone some way towards highlighting our concerns around the current proposals for our public library service – concerns shared by the 10,600 plus people across the county who have signed the petition calling for an urgent, independent review of these proposals.
Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries
We would also ask anyone who is concerned by these proposals to write to their local County Councillors before the 19th January. We have also written to District, Town and Parish Councils who will be consulted on these plans by GCC, and would encourage individuals to do the same.