Some months ago, we learnt that Gloucestershire County Council had been in ongoing correspondence with the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) over their plans for our library service.
The MLA is the publicly funded body charged with; “leading strategically… promot[ing] best practice in museums, libraries and archives, to inspire innovative, integrated and sustainable services for all”, and we were keen to learn what they had had to say about GCC’s plans.
We first submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Gloucestershire County Council, but received only brief minutes from one meeting. Our complaint that we believed more information existed was not upheld. So, we tried submitting our FOI to the MLA themselves who were much more forthcoming. We received a huge wodge of documentation and correspondence relating to GCC and dating from 2009 to the present day. These documents make for interesting (if depressing) reading and are summarised in this post.
The relationship between MLA and GCC got off to a rocky start. The emails we have access to show that MLA had been attempting to engage with GCC since early 2009, but that GCC were reluctant, and that the offers of support and guidance issued by the MLA were not taken up until late summer/autumn 2010.
Despite this failure to engage, MLA kept an eye on GCC throughout late 2009 and 2010. It seems that as early as December 2009, GCC were considering the shared premises and partnership options now presented in the ‘Library Link’ model. Various ideas for partnerships are thrown back and forth behind the scenes. An email from the Chief Executive of MLA, Roy Clare, to the then head of GCC’s Library and Information Services (LIS), David Paynter, reads;
‘It will be vital to really understand the business model and get the process resolved before shot-gun betrothals of fundamentally incompatible services. As with real marriages the pre-nup stage is crucial. The MLA has evidence of examples of half-baked (half-hearted?) sharing where wither costs increase or no savings are made‘
Given recent indications that the much vaunted ‘partnerships’ for the library service are not as firmly in place as we had been led to believe, it seems that this was advice GCC would have done well to heed!
Email correspondence between David Paynter and MLA in August 2010 discusses 15 – 20% cuts LIS have been asked to sketch out for the service. David Paynter describes Councillor Noble’s response to these proposed cuts;
‘[she] suggested that the savings that we are being asked to make seem “unfair” to her. So perhaps we have managed to get a real champion“
This is the same Councillor who has, in recent months, strongly supported the 43% reduction (now around 36% following the 31st January provisions) planned for the service, and has actually claimed that this will result in a better service!
Even before the current programme of cuts was announced, MLA were expressing concern at GCC’s approach to the library service. The minutes of a meeting between the MLA and Glos LIS in August 2010 describe Council Leader Mark Hawthorne as ‘hard-line’, and question Portfolio Holder Councillor Noble’s influence, while then LIS Head David Paynter is recorded as saying that the library service is not supported at the political level. Concern is expressed by MLA officers about the reduction in the book fund, and it is recorded that;
‘The strategy appears to be focused on a minimum service based around options on a 10 and 20 minute drive time’
‘the service model is a radical move from the traditional to a digital based service, e.g. very few if any paper books’
Although in this early version of the strategy, the mobile service seems to have remained in operation, unlike under current plans.
The report goes on to question GCC’s decision-making rationale – a criticism which has also been made repeatedly by this campaign;
‘None of the libraries in the 9 [proposed main libraries] are those which are co-located with children’s centres, where there has been major investment, where there is joint use with a school. The minimum option of 9 takes no account of usage levels or location within areas of high deprivation. There is political concern regarding potential public reaction and MLA/DCMS intervention.’
GCC announced its plans for a reduced library service in November 2010. Notes from a meeting between MLA and Sue Laurence (Assistant Head of LIS) and David Paynter immediately following the announcement confirm that GCC only intended to hold one consultation session in each local district council area, in libraries not under direct threat – additional dates were only added following outcry from library users. The cuts to libraries in deprived area is also identified as a concern, and there is mention of Tuffley Library maybe being ‘maintained through co-location with a life-skills centre in a fire service building’ – something that local library users we have spoken to know nothing about and have never been consulted on!
Email discussion of GCC’s plans between MLA officers is highly critical, and again identifies the impact on deprived communities as a particular concern. An email between MLA officers states;
‘Although I don’t have the deprivation data, I suspect some of those mentioned as effectively being closed if the communities do not take them over are in the most deprived areas’.
The reply says;
‘I agree with you concerning the areas of deprivation. Most of the branch libraries they seem to be keeping open are in the wealthier parts of Cheltenham and the Cotswolds’.
It goes on;
‘Two key issues come to mind immediately here. One is consultation. What consultation has been undertaken with the public concerning these changes? I think the answer is little. Second issue is driving down costs through sharing with others which Gloucestershire seem incapable of’
Interestingly, despite Councillor Hawthorne’s repeated assertion that ‘no libraries need to close’ and ‘we are not closing any libraries’, MLA do not view things that way. The emails and documents we have access to contain numerous references to library closures (‘selected libraries to be closed by June/mid-July’ for example), whilst emails between MLA officers from December 2010 refer to GCC’s ‘drastic cuts’.
MLA are also concerned that GCC Councillors have advocated the possibility of ‘community libraries’ charging for membership, which they state would mean that these libraries could not be counted towards the council’s provision of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service as per their statutory duty. An MLA officer asks Sue Laurence directly about this, and she replies;
‘Re the comment made by a Councillor. We think this was made by a Councillor who attended a drop-in session at Minchinhampton Library. He does not have lead responsibility for libraries and think he may have mis-interpreted things’
She is mistaken. This comment was made by Councillor Stan Waddington at the Minchinhampton consultation, but it was also repeated by Councillor Noble (the portfolio holder!) at the consultation session held at Stroud Library!
Like us MLA are concerned about GCC’s use of Buckinghamshire community libraries as a point of comparison and justification for their strategy;
‘Publicly and in the press they [GCC Councillors] have regularly referred to ‘success story’ in Buckinghamshire where a number of libraries are being run by communities. Whilst they have not visited Bucks (too expensive apparently) it sounds as though the leader and portfolio holder have been in touch with their equivalents to discuss what has happened. What are your thoughts on the community library approach in Bucks? I remember hearing mixed views on it in the past’
Internal emails between MLA officers also refer to school libraries;
‘Overall school’s library services are looking very vulnerable and there is a question over whether public library services should continue to effective subsidise them, or whether early decisions should be taken to cease service provision in order to protect public library services’
This rather contradicts Councillor Noble’s statement that Gloucestershire parents needn’t worry about the reductions to the public library service as their children can get everything they need from school libraries!
On 31st January 2011, GCC announced revision to the library proposals. MLA were informed of these revisions a few days ahead of the public, and discussed them in internal emails;
‘GCC has recently sent us some revised proposals concerning their library service in confidence ahead of a meeting with the portfolio holder and strategic director on Monday morning.
My initial thoughts about revised proposals are that there have been some concessions
- support to community libraries
- directed support to vulnerable and elderly
- encouraging volunteering
But I am more interested by what is not said
- no changes to number of libraries going to community status [this is actually incorrect – the number of ‘community libraries’ was reduced from 11 to 10]
- no details of finances
- no details on timings
- nothing about the mobile service
- nothing about charging
It still leaves questions and concerns’
At this point MLA’s approach becomes very disappointing. Rather than pressing GCC on the outstanding serious concerns, GCC and MLA seem to suddenly start ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. In an ‘update’ report to Ed Vaizey, Jon Finch, the MLA officer with responsibility for the South West region says;
‘Additional personal discussions have been held with vulnerable service users including the elderly, infirm and those living in particular remote rural areas. Library staff are also visiting all localities which will be directly influenced by the proposed changes, meeting with community and user groups to ensure they secure a wide range of views as possible. They were particularly targeting the poorest parts of the county. The team have attended consultation sessions which have been well managed and well-attended’
In fact, ‘the team’ (consisting of one MLA officer who also happens to be a Gloucestershire resident) attended ONE consultation session at Tewkesbury Library – a library not directly affected by the service cuts. It does not seem to occur to them that their impression of the consultation process may have been a little different had they attended a consultation session in a library facing closure or severe service reduction!
We’re also left perplexed by the claim that GCC have made particular efforts to consult with vulnerable people. If this is the case why have so many ‘vulnerable’ people been contacting us, asking for information and advice? If you are a vulnerable person who has been specially consulted by GCC we would dearly like to hear from you about your experience. It is also untrue that ‘Library staff are also visiting all localities which will be directly influenced by the proposed changes’. Four libraries earmarked for ‘community transfer’, including Hesters Way – one of the most deprived areas of the county and within the top 25% of deprived areas nationally, have not been offered a public consultation session.
MLA documentation and emails from this latter stage of the decision making process contain many references to GCC responding to public feedback in amending its proposals. Much is made of GCC ‘listening’ to the people of Cinderford, but what about other areas, where local people protested just as strongly against the loss of their service?
Notes from a meeting between MLA and GCC on the 31st January state;
‘Whilst some issues have been identified in the equality impact assessment of the proposals there are also measures identified to mitigate these’
What measures? We see no evidence of this, and the fact remains that the most deprived areas of the county will lose their public library service under these plans. The same document states;
‘The Council was robust in its view that is has undertaken a broad and open consultation and stated that officers and members had met or committed to meet all individuals and groups who had come forward. The portfolio holder agreed to follow up specifically with the FOGL campaigners to ensure they were suitably briefed’
In fact she has done the opposite. FoGL members have been attempting to arrange a meeting with Councillor Noble since mid-January. We were first offered a daytime meeting that few would be able to attend due to work and childcare commitments, and when we asked instead for an evening meeting, we were told she was too busy. Councillor Noble (and Councillor Hawthorne) are now using the ongoing legal challenge as an excuse not to meet with us, despite FoGL not being the claimant. They are also refusing to answer our questions by email, again citing the legal challenge despite the fact that neither FoGL or the individuals concerned are the claimants, and that many of the questions asked pre-date the challenge!
It is really disappointing that the MLA, the organisation supposed to champion the library sector and promote best practice, seem to be letting GCC off the hook so easily. MLA’s notes from the 31st January meeting contain many unanswered questions, which, to our knowledge, GCC have still provided no meaningful response to, either to members of the public who have been asking these same questions for many months, or to MLA:
‘Can you clarify how you have decided which libraries you will offer to communities to run, You mention geographical spread several times in the information you provide have other factors been taken into account?’ [GCC have confirmed that geographical spread and user numbers were taken into account – no account was taken of areas of deprivation or particular needs of communities, despite Ed Vaizey specifying that this should be the case in his letter to local authorities late last year]
Can you clarify what if any support will be provided to community libraries beyond the year in which they are scheduled to have funding withdrawn where the local communities take them on? [We keep hearing, on the ‘grapevine’, of random amounts and deals, and different offers being made to different communities]
Will you also be looking for public sector stakeholders to share services with/support delivery of the libraries to be community run?
How will the council continue to encourage communities to run those smaller libraries earmarked for closure in the coming months? I understand you have mentioned peppercorn rates and asset transfer, is there anything else?
What investment will be made in identifying and training volunteers to run the community libraries?
Please could you outline your plans to meet the needs of the most vulnerable? What services will you provide? What will they be charged for?
[We still have no answer except MLA claiming the impacts have been mitigated – no detail is given of how this ‘mitigation’ has been achieved]
The consultation process continues until 10th Feb, yet the initial council discussion will be well before that finish date. How will the issues emerging from that part of the consultation be analysed and fed into the decision making process? [Good question – and one we have tried, and failed, to get an answer to from GCC]
The information provided on the consultation documents refers to mobile services briefly stating such services will be stopped completely, could you confirm your plans for the mobile services and outline how you will engage remote/housebound communities?
The emerging learning from FLP [Future Libraries Project] and the “without borders” [Local authority collaboration] project provide valuable evidence to support a strategic and innovative approach providing a better long term outcome for the service and customers than significant financial reductions and closures in the short term. Larger library authorities provide potential to achieve the economies of scale to deliver high level services at lower cost [MLA are basically hinting at them to wait for the findings of the Future Libraries Project as there can be alternatives to this]
There are significant financial and consequent risks to the service is some of the planned savings/income are not achieved over the three year period. This has further implications in respect of the duty to provide comprehensive and efficient library service” Has any risk analysis been undertaken, the potential impact of services quantified and a mitigation strategy developed?’
It is bizarre, and extremely depressing, that rather than pursuing answers to these very reasonable and crucial questions, MLA now seem to be supporting GCC in their plans, and misinforming DCMS that all is well in Gloucestershire. Library users are being badly let down.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, an email dated 23rd November 2010 between MLA officers describes GCC’s ‘post-decision process’;
‘the council is moving to a commissioning model initially with internal delivery units’
We have been told that this is a byword for privatisation of our service. If this is indeed GCC’s long-term goal then the future of our service looks bleak. There are two main ‘players’ in this ‘market’; an American company, LSSI, and John Laing Integrated Services who already run libraries in the London Borough of Hounslow. We have submitted FOI requests to GCC for correspondence and documentation relating to both. We have been told that GCC holds no material relevant to LSSI, and are waiting for the outcome of the John Laing enquiry. Watch this space.