We had been told that the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) who are “the eyes and ears” for the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and who oversee libraries, have been working with Gloucestershire County Council on their library proposals for the last 18 months. We were amazed that GCC could have come up with such an unworkable library proposal if this were the case and wondered how they were being advised so we submitted a Freedom of Information Request asking for all communication between the MLA and Gloucestershire County Council. We have received the following sparse meeting notes and this is all.
Meeting with MLA 31st January 2011
Present: Cllr Noble, Dave Martin, Sue Laurence, Trevor Gough, John Finch
We discussed consultation process so far and what had changed as a result. It was quite a substantial shift. It had been helpful to listen to what ‘real’ people were concerned about in communities and not just the campaign voices.
We advised MLA of an additional £800,000 of funding to the libraries budget, £500,000 of which was announced this morning – 31January as part of our consultation response. Library links hours of opening have been increased and the offer to community run libraries has been significantly improved with for example Talis providing a “cut down” management system
£100,000 of council underspend will be carried forward for the stock budget
We clarified that we were not saying community run libraries could charge. MLA thought the more enhanced community offer was an improvement.
In terms of timescales we anticipate ending our direct management of the community run libraries assuming successful business cases are made at the end of June. There will be handover training over approximately 2-3 months. Opening hours will be decided locally and libraries should re-open under new management in September. We will be flexible. Cabinet will consider the new policy approach on 2 February with Council approving the Policy and Budget on 16 February
DM indicated that in terms of governance the starting point would be a policy statement upon which we have consulted. We explained the tiers and the changes resulting from consultation so far. JF agreed that providing a library service is not just about buildings and that the right approach is to have a focussed strategy and plan for taking the service into the future
MLA suggested we look at what Warwickshire are doing with their virtual library and reminded us that support for taking forward work with volunteers was still available.
We discussed how we were planning to address the needs of the most vulnerable especially older people. JF suggested that we make it clearer for public and national audience as well so that message is getting out. The Mobile service is being reconfigured and we will adopt a personalisation model of provision in partnership with a variety of organizations. We should also be clear about things like Books on Prescription and how we will still deliver it in the future. We will be speaking to all mobile users about alternatives.
JF asked how we would respond to further campaigning. We talked about being clear about the strategic framework, about the consultation and being honest about the reduced budget and these pressures.
MLA asked about our response to regional co-operation and said it would be worth looking at what Herefordshire and Shropshire were doing. We said we were waiting for the results of the SW ‘Without Borders’ report to see if there was anything to develop.
JF asked for more information about the financial aspects of our change. (SL to send). Antonia asked for a meeting to be set up with TG, SL and Mark Parker to discuss the Community Run Libraries aspect. (SL to action)
SL raised the workforce development challenges and need to take the team through to believe in the future and the changes.
Hidden benefit had been that Cabinet knew a lot more about libraries role now. Cllr AN agreed to meet with JF again.
I am dismayed to see that the 15,000 people who signed the petition and the thousands of people who have supported Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries are not regarded as “real people“by the MLA and GCC. Gloucestershire County Council has always tried to discredit us as “a vocal minority” when in fact we are REAL PEOPLE, REAL LIBRARY USERS, who came together, as instructed by MLA Chief Roy Clare and Culture Secretary Ed Vaisey, to try to hold our council to account and to give “real people” a voice.
Nationally campaigners have been branded as “white and middle class” who want to “maintain the status quo” by Mr Clare, and now we are not considered as “real people”. What ARE local people supposed to do? Last week Mr Clare mocked a nine year old girl for writing to the Prime Minister to ask him to save her library as she should be talking to councillors. We have tried the “talking to councillors” approach and are met with contempt. We have been ignored, referred to as “militant”, been sneered at and heckled in council meetings…the list goes on.
Cllr Noble has answered none of my questions and Cllr Hawthorne, the council leader is responding to emails with “I note the contents of your email. I do not intend to respond” People in Gloucestershire still have no idea what is happening to their libraries. Cllr Hawthorne got the figures and facts wrong and has misrepresented us in a letter to the newspapers, mis-truths that he refuses to set straight.
We have been refused access to the “drop in” consultation feedback and when SIX conservative councillors submitted local petitions from their constituents opposing the library plans NOT one of them spoke up for their communities, not even the Cllr who handed in a petition signed by 70% of his constituents. We see no evidence that anyone’s views have been listened to or that their concerns have been applied to the library proposals.
The notes of the meeting also claim that charging to use community libraries was not suggested by GCC. This is an untruth. Both Cllr Noble and Cllr Waddington publicly said charging could happen.
We don’t know how the needs of the vulnerable will be met, how programmes like the Summer Reading Challenge and Books on Prescription will work. We don’t know what will replace the mobile libraries….despite asking, and asking we still have no answers. Everything is either “confidential” or is being made up as they go along. People have no idea what they are being “consulted” on. Cllr Hawthorne says there are successful examples of the “model” they are trying to implement up and down the country but when asked for details he cannot name them.
The most surprising claim in these notes is that Cabinet know a lot more about libraries role now. If they do there is no evidence that they are applying that knowledge otherwise why continue down this destructive path?
Library users have used every democratic tool at their disposal in Gloucestershire to try to get answers. Cllr Noble has been too busy to meet with us or engage, people have left “consultations” with more questions than answers, the “scrutiny committee” and petition schemes were “train wrecks”. Now a legal challenge has been launched. It is a sad day that it has come to this.
I have never been involved in local politics before and the conduct of councillors has shocked, upset and appalled me. As dictatorships are being overthrown across the world one is still going strong, for now, in Gloucestershire.
Central Government is passing the buck back to local authorities and no one is being held to account. Those who try are dismissed.
I think the truth is that the county council have been surprised by the strength of feeling against their proposals and have reacted by putting up the defence barriers instead of trying to work with local people to find the best solution, and it seems the MLA are cheering them on.
Still, we will keep asking the questions. We will not go away.
Cllr Noble is now responding to any questions about the library plans with this:
“I’m afraid, as this issue is now the subject of potential legal proceedings, I’m not going to be making any further comment. I appreciate this is frustrating and, once the proceedings are resolved, I’ll be happy, once again substantively to reply to your e-mails and indeed to discuss issues with you further.”
I hope this means the library plans are also being delayed until the legal proceedings are over also!! There is no point answering questions in retrospect once the damage has been done. It is a further abuse of democracy if we are not allowed to ask questions yet the library plans continue to be pushed through.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” Mohandas Gandhi