Since GCC’s plans to drastically cut our library service were announced in late 2010, six former Gloucestershire senior library staff have been working hard behind the scenes to fight for the service they love and helped to build.
Following several lengthy letters to County Council Leader Mark (‘I am listening’) Hawthorne, which received brief and desultory replies, the unresolved complaints were taken to GCC Chief Executive Pete Bungard.
We are becoming very concerned by the amount of “misinformation” and inaccurate statements being made by the county council, and, we have to say this, by the leader of county council, Cnllr Hawthorne. This misinformation appears to us in some instances to be disseminated in order to mislead the people of Gloucestershire. Our fear is that this is bringing the County Council into disrepute.
We share with you some examples. If we are wrong about any of these we apologise in advance. However, the evidence is building almost daily.
1) When the proposals for the possible closure of 23 libraries (we include 5 x mobile libraries; 11 x community-run libraries and 7 x “Library Links” open 3 hour a week as drop off/ collection points) went public in November, no library was allowed to display information about the proposals, even about their own library. Only a bland open letter statement from Cnllr Hawthorne about the need to make cuts and a web link was allowed in libraries. Staff were told that they could not raise the issue with customers. It was only when I raised this personally with the Cabinet Member for Libraries, Councillor Noble, 6 weeks into the consultation period that it was agreed that libraries could display info about which libraries will be affected. It was January before this happened – nearly 2 months into a 3 month consultation period.
2) Most GCC communications to the media state that 11 libraries may be affected by closure. In real terms, as we stated above, it is 23. It is only in the past 2-3 weeks that the website has made it explicit that mobile library services will be terminated. Indeed, the complete axing of the mobile library service (3 rural mobiles, the Home Link service for residential homes and the Share a Book service for disadvantaged under 6s), does not appear at all in the L&I consultation survey. Please check it yourself at http://ww5.gloucestershire.gov.uk/surveys/Library_Service_Consultation/
3) Based on the above facts, Cnllr Hawthorne’s and Noble’s oft quoted mantra that “no library needs to close” is disingenuous at best.
4) We believe that Cnllr Hawthorne’s statement on local television that “the vast majority of savings from the library service are from back office staff” is not true.
5) Cnllr Noble appeared on TV saying that she had received legal advice that the library proposals are not in breach of the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act. The FOI request for information about the advice given to Cnllr Noble about the legality of the proposals was responded to with a statement by GCC that no information was available as the advice was given verbally. We have to say that this seems highly unlikely.
6) The FOI request for information about any documentation relating to negotiations with the police about co-location with libraries received this GCC response “Gloucestershire County Council does not have an agreement with the Police regarding libraries. We have only entered into discussions at this stage so there is no documentation“. I know that discussions were entered into with the police from last summer onwards. It was discussed by Fran Mahon at an Asset Management meeting I attended last July. I wrote an email about it in July. It is well known amongst councillors, and both Cnllr Noble and Assistant Head of Libraries, Jo Hand, confirmed to me on Monday evening at the Stroud Library consultation drop-in that discussions began in the middle of last year. This makes the GCC response inaccurate, I think you will agree.
7) In term of bringing GCC into disrepute, we feel that we should add the rude response to the12,000 signature petition by some county councillors at the 19 January full council meeting. The discourtesy shown to the 12,000 people who had signed, and also to the representative of FOGL who made the statement, was an embarrassment to the council. The presentation of the incinerator statement received a similar response with Cnllr Hawthorne leaving the chamber during it. Even Councillor Hawthorne himself was reported as calling the meeting “a train wreck”. It is no consolation of any kind that FOGL is allowed to make a statement at the Cabinet Meeting on 2 Feb, as the revised plans will be drafted in advance of the meeting. You know as well as we do that the statement at the Cabinet Meeting will not influence the outcome.
8) According to the GCC constitution “The public is entitled to see and obtain a copy of the agenda of every meeting of the full Council, Council body and any meeting of the Cabinet held in public at least five days before the day of the meeting (excluding the day the agenda is first publicised and the day of the meeting itself). The public may also see and obtain a copy of every report that is to be considered at the meeting and any “background paper” that was relied on to produce the report.” GCC has failed to deliver this for the 2 Feb 2011 cabinet meeting. Even if published on Monday 31 Jan that will only be 1 day’s notice, if one applies the formula above. As well as being unconstitutional, this obviously allows less time for FOGL to provide a considered response at the Cabinet Meeting.
Overall, our conclusion is that “spin” is being replaced with information that deliberately intends to mislead the people of Gloucestershire. We imagine that the penalties for local authorities for some of these apparent misdemeanours is very significant. We would not like to see the name of Gloucestershire County Council, which has achieved so much over the years, dragged through the mud in this manner.
We would be pleased to receive your comments on these issues. However, we do need a quick response, please, Pete, as the timescale is now very tight, and we are, of course, considering others options for the dissemination of this information.
Out of respect for Mr. Bungard, we chose to not make this letter public until he had a chance to make his response. A response was received yesterday, and says, simply;
Thank you for your concerns and comments which I’ve noted.
It seems that Mr. Bungard has been taking some letter writing tips from Councillors Noble and Hawthorne.
When will this Council LISTEN to the public, and engage meaningfully with the genuine, reasonable and serious concerns being raised by so many about both the library service plans, and the Council’s appalling behaviour throughout this entire process??