Today the now 13,000 signature-strong petition calling for an independent review of Gloucestershire County Council’s plans for our public library service was debated at a full council meeting at Shire Hall. As part of the debate campaigner Demelza Jones made a statement on behalf of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries, reproduced in full below.
Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries are today presenting a petition calling for an urgent, independent and transparent review of proposals for our public library service.
Over 10,500 signatures have been presented to Shire Hall. The petition continues to grow, and we have now collected 13,000 signatures, from people in all corners of the county – young and old, and from all walks of life. Strength of feeling amongst the Gloucestershire electorate is high.
The 43% cut proposed for our libraries risks irreversible damage to a service which costs little, has already absorbed a 24% budget cut, and yet provides significant and widely-felt benefits.
Councillor Hawthorne says that budget decisions reflect the need to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. Yet these are the very people who will be hit the hardest by these cuts. He talks about ‘life-changing services’, but for many vulnerable people the local library is just that: The elderly and disabled people for whom library vists play a crucial role in staving off social isolation, the children who receive support in their learning from trained library staff, and the unemployed people who rely on library resources in their efforts to re-enter the job market.
Councillor Hawthorne states that ‘no libraries need to close’, referring to plans for the ‘community transfer’ of libraries, to be run and funded by volunteers. We have serious reservations about these plans, which have no precedent of success. The Chair of a volunteer-run library in Buckinghamshire, the county whose volunteer-run libraries have been cited by Councillors as indication that ‘community libraries work’, has publicly stated that he believes a scheme of this kind can only work in affluent areas with a retired professional population, with business skills, and the capacity to invest a great deal of time and money. To propose this for Gloucestershire’s most disadvantaged areas, with minimal Council support, and at a time when the voluntary sector will be stretched as never before, sets these libraries up for failure.
To say that no libraries will close also ignores the loss of the five mobile libraries. For some of our county’s most vulnerable residents; elderly people and children in rural areas, people in care homes, and the housebound, mobile libraries offer the only opportunity to access the library network. The ‘virtual library’ proposed as a replacement will be of no use to the estimated 4 in 10 people in Gloucestershire who do not have internet access – many of whom are likely to be older people, or those on low incomes.
This petition’s call for a review of these proposals reflects a lack of confidence in the consultation and decision making process thus far. By basing proposals on maintaining geographical spread, the Council have failed to take account of social impacts and the needs of communities.
Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, has written to all local authority leaders, emphasising the importance of compliance with the statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service as per the Public Libraries Act. The last authority found to be in breach of the Act was the Wirral in September 2009. The principal reasons were that the authority failed to make an assessment of local needs, and ignored the needs of deprived communities. Gloucestershire has made the very same errors. We were not reassured to learn that Councillor Noble’s assertion that these plans are not in breach of the Act was based on unaccountable verbal advice, and pressure is growing for legal intervention.
A review should be undertaken by an independent individual or body, with professional knowledge of public library networks. We suggest the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals, whose staff have completed thorough and impartial reviews for other authorities. Due to the lack of transparency thus far, we request that Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries have representation on any review panel.
Any expense associated with a review is an expense which could have been avoided had the Council engaged in a proper and meaningful consultation process from the start, and would be minimal in comparison to the expense which may be incurred from the likely legal challenges should the Council proceed with these proposals.
It would be wrong for Councillors to dismiss the concerns of the 12,000 people across our county who have signed this petition. We understand that the Council faces a difficult financial situation, and we accept that there may be some savings to be made within the libraries budget. We do not however, accept cuts of this damaging and disproportionate extent to a cost effective and successful service, which hurt our county’s most vulnerable residents the most, and which have been planned with no consideration of social impacts or the needs of communities.
after the debate we released this press statement. A full report of the debate will be published shortly.