On the 19th January, representatives of Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries attended the full County Council meeting to present our now 13,000 signature strong county-wide petition calling for an urgent, independent and transparent review of plans for our library service.
The day got off to a great start with lots of supporters turning out to lobby arriving Councillors on the steps of Shire Hall, and to pose for the assembled media. There are some photos from the lobby here. We were joined by supporters of the Friends of the Earth Campaign against a giant waste incinerator, whose petition was also under debate at the meeting, and one of whose supporters had written a wonderful song combining the aims of the two campaigns.
The meeting began to a full public gallery. The agenda slot dedicated to the two petitions was preceded by a lengthy debate on how the Council should actually deal with the petitions. The monitoring officer stated that legally, there could not be a vote on petitions, as this would fall outside the bounds of the Council’s own constitution and could indicate a decision had already been made by Councillors on issues still under debate. As such, there could be a debate on each petition, but no vote.
Liberal Democrat, Labour, Green and Independent Councillors were unhappy with this, stating that a debate was insufficient to reflect Council opinion back to the members of the public who had taken the trouble to collect signatures and present the petitions. They asked for at least an informal vote to measure Council opinion. This discussion went on for some time, and eventually the meeting was adjourned so that the Council Leader, the leader of the opposition, and the leader of the third group could discuss this privately with the monitoring officer.
They returned some 45 minutes later. A motion was proposed stating that, while there could not legally be a vote on the petitions, they should be considered as ‘a relevant contribution to the ongoing decision-making process’, taking the following into account:
1. The terms and size of the petition
2. The submission made by the person introducing the petition
3. The contribution to the debate made by Members of the Council
The opposition proposed an amendment calling for a suspension of normal procedures and a vote, but this was defeated by a vote in the chamber (all Conservative Councillors voted against, everyone else voted for). The motion was therefore passed without the amendment. It was also agreed that a representative of each petition would also be invited to address the Cabinet meeting on the 2nd Februrary.
Unfortunately the length of this discussion (along with the adjournment) meant that many FoGL supporters had to leave the public gallery to get back to work before we even reached the petition itself! It’s a shame that these issues were only finalised on the day of the debate itself, when the petition scheme has been in place since June, and the Council have known for some weeks to expect a petition of 5,000+ signatures from us!
The shambolic nature of this part of the meeting has been covered extensively in the press. Council Leader Mark Hawthorne has branded the meeting a ‘train-wreck’, and has been busy trying to get political mileage out of the situation by blaming everyone but himself, while opposition Councillors express their dissatisfaction with the whole ‘farcical’ process!
Finally, we reached the moment everyone in the public gallery had been waiting for (for a very long time!) The Friends of the Earth petition was presented first and debated for 30 minutes. Then it was our turn.
I presented our arguments as clearly as I could (full text here). I was struck by the rudeness of some Conservative Councillors, who chatted, sniggered, rolled their eyes and moved around the Chamber to confer with colleagues during our statement. They clearly had no intention of listening to what I had to say, and I was disappointed that as a member of the public, a guest in the Chamber , and representative of some 13,000 petition signatories, I was not treated with a little more courtesy and respect.
Councillor Noble’s statement in reply thanked the ‘Friends’ for their hard work, before defending the plans for the library service. It was implied that opponents of these plans were putting around misleading information, which was frightening vulnerable people. For instance, the mobile libraries we are reassured, are to replaced with the virtual library, and a catalogue service for those who cannot access the internet. Other alternatives to current service provisions were mentioned. Had we had any right of reply within this debate, we would have pointed out that Friends of Gloucestershire libraries have always only disseminated as much information as the County Council has provided. Perhaps the fault lies with GCC’s lack of transparency and detail of alternatives? When we have sought clarity we have been told we are seeking an “inappropriate level of detail”. Perhaps someone at GCC will point us in the direction of these workable alternatives? The familiar statement that ‘no libraries need to close’ was repeated. It is interesting to note, that no defence was made of the lack of consideration of social impacts. ‘We are listening to the consultation feedback we are receiving’ was another refrain.
The debate was then opened to the full Council. Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Councillors raised some excellent points, mainly focusing on the lack of social impact consideration and the obvious shortcomings of the consultation and decision-making process. Councillor Hilton (Lib Dem opposition leader) raised the point that the Council is apparently putting £1.2million extra into reserves this year, and pointed out that this could go some way towards retaining a much more fit-for-purpose library service then what we will be left with under current proposals.
Councillor Hawthorne then spoke at length in defence of the plans, again stating that the Council had no choice, and had to cut either the libraries or services for vulnerable people. He seemed to have missed the part of my statement where I challenged this point (maybe it was when he was busy conferring with his colleagues).
He stated that the libraries are being defended by eloquent individuals, and implied that we are a ‘vocal minority’. This seems rather hypocritical given that the original consultation exercise by which the Council put such store in their decision-making, was answered by less than half the numbers who have signed the petition. Perhaps he has less problem in listening to ‘a vocal minority’ when it suits his aims?
He implied that he would rather meet the needs of vulnerable people who have no voice and cannot speak eloquently in public meetings – like the hundreds of elderly people, children, low income people and carers across the county who have been shocked and upset when informed by FoGL supporters about the extent of cuts planned for the libraries, and who have signed the petition, and written us letters and emails in their droves as they feel so utterly detached, excluded and frustrated by the Council’s own ‘consultation process’ perhaps?
It was interesting to note that three additional petitions were presented to Councillor Noble by other Councillors on behalf of their constituents. All three petitions were concerned with residents’ anger at the loss or reduction of their library service, and two were actually presented by fellow Conservative County Councillors. Yet during the debate, neither of these Councillors spoke against or raised any concerns about these plans. In fact, they joined their colleagues in clapping and ‘hear hear’-ing loudly at Councillor Hawthorne’s defence of the plans. Apparently for these Councillors, party political loyalty takes precedent over representing the concerns of their electorate. I wonder how people in their constituencies feel about this?
Following Councillor Hawthorne’s statement the debate concluded, and we left the Chamber to give our impression of events to the assembled media outside. As we said to them, while were disappointed not to have had a vote, the petition has done its job of getting this issue, and the views of almost 13,000 people onto a full Council agenda and, through the public record of the meeting, and the media coverage, into the wider public arena.
Councillors Hawthorne and Noble claim ‘we are listening’. Whether they will listen, remains to be seen.