It’s hard to believe, but Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries is one year old this month.
An awful lot has happened in the last 12 months. I hate to think of the number of hours that have been put into this campaign, and the number of words written to Councillors Hawthorne and Noble expressing our grave concerns about their plans for our library service (although of course we’ve received substantially less in reply!). Here is a recap of the story so far….
Friends of Cheltenham Libraries was started in August 2010 by Johanna to provide a voice for Cheltenham library users, but following interest from across the county, was expanded to become Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries. The formation of the group was timely, as that same month Gloucestershire County Council announced that the library service’s book budget would be slashed by 40%. An editorial in the Gloucestershire Echo warned that this “one-off saving at a difficult time should not be the start of our library service being undermined”. Little did they, or we, know what was to come…
Through September/October FoGL’s first public meetings were held, meaning a strong network of concerned library users was in place by the time GCC announced its devastating plans for 43% cuts to the library service (including the closure of 11 branches and all mobile libraries, and severe reductions in services and opening hours at many more) in November. The campaign proper swung into action, with members letter-writing to Councillors and MPs, and the campaign gaining substantial coverage in the press – including the first of many mentions of the Gloucestershire situation in the national media.
FoGL joined other concerned members of the public at the Gloucester anti-cuts march, where the chant ‘Gloucester Libraries RIP, Killed off by GCC!’ was taken up by large sections of the crowd! We also received the first of our many messages of support from authors, from Gloucestershire-based children’s writer John Dougherty.
By December it became clear that we were not going to be able to rely on the support of our elected representatives, as Richard Graham MP (Conservative, Gloucester) accused our campaign of ‘missing the point’, despite outcry from many of his own constituents about the council’s plans. Other elected representatives did show their support however, including some local Liberal Democrats, Labour and Green councillors.
The council’s consultation plans were branded ‘a complete sham’ by retired senior library service staff, an observation seemingly confirmed by the many emails we began to receive from people who had attended council consultation sessions and public meetings, and left feeling angry that their questions had gone unanswered and their concerns had seemingly fallen on deaf ears.
In happier news, we were thrilled to receive a message of support from bestselling author Joanna Trollope, who later wrote a piece for the Guardian highlighting the situation in Gloucestershire. Other welcome messages of support came from authors Alice Jolly, Alison Weir, and then-Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne.
December also saw the launch of the petition calling for an independent review of the council’s plans for the library service, and campaigners braved snow and ice to collect signatures around the county.
Our aim was to collect 5,000 signatures in order to force a full council debate of the petition demands, but by early January we had collected over 10,000, more then twice what we needed! By the time the council debate came round on the 19th January the figure was 13,000! As part of the terms of the council’s petition scheme, FoGL were allowed to make a statement to full council. Unfortunately the debate itself was a total farce, with councillors spending more time deciding how to deal with the petition than debating the issues and concerns it raised. There was not a vote on the petition demands as promised, but we were instead invited to attend a Cabinet meeting to present our concerns there.
January also saw messages of support for the campaign flooding in from comedians Stewart Lee and Robin Ince, ‘Horrible Science’ illustrator Tony De Saulles, author of the massively popular ‘Gruffalo’ books Julia Donaldson, children’s writers and illustrators Shoo Rayner and Neil Griffiths, bestselling novelists Katie Fforde and Kate Mosse, and a fantastic letter of support co-signed by twenty Gloucestershire-based writers, including Jilly Cooper! The campaign was also backed by teachers, health professionals, carers and charities working with older people – supporting our continued assertions of the importance of libraries in the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantage members of our communities.
The month ended with GCC announcing, with great fanfare, their ‘revisions’ to the library plans in response to consultation (despite the fact that the consultation process continued well into February!). Although Cinderford was reinstated into the network as a ‘Library Express’, library users in other parts of the county were distinctly underwhelmed by these ‘improvements’ to the plans.
February came, bringing our promised ‘slot’ to put our concerns (and those of the now 15,000 petition-signatories) over to the GCC Cabinet. Again we made our statement, and again we were ignored, with Cabinet members actually voting to pass the library proposals BEFORE we were given the chance to make our statement! We were also able to observe the GCC administration’s version of ‘democracy’ at a farcical Scrutiny Committee meeting, following the ‘call-in’ of the library plans by opposition councillors. Unsurprisingly, the plans were passed by full council (which given the Conservative majority is a rubber-stamping exercise) on the 16th February.
Despite all this we did manage to have some FUN in February too, with the fantastic Save Libraries Day (the brainchild of Alan Gibbons and the Campaign for the Book) on February 5th. FoGL supporters organised events celebrating the library service and all that it offers at every one of the 36 Gloucestershire libraries open that day! Events included storytelling, art and craft workshops, writing masterclasses, and visits from one of our fabulous ‘Flying Authors’. The day was a great success and sent the message loud and clear that the people of Gloucestershire love, value and use their libraries, and despite GCC’s attempt to ban the media from events(!), received a ream of local, national and even international press coverage.
Messages of support continued to roll in too, from children’s authors Cindy Jefferies and Sally Grindley and internationlly acclaimed Booker Prize winning author of ‘Life of Pi’, Yann Martel (quite possibly the most exciting thing ever to arrive in our inbox!)
February also saw the launch of a legal challenge against GCC’s plans for the library service by Birmingham-based legal firm Public Interest Lawyers. Although FoGL are not the claiments in the challenge, the decision was made to support it. We felt that while it was regrettable that things had come to this, the complete and utter failure of GCC to listen to and respond to the needs and concerns of service users, and the inaction and seeming indifference of both the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) left no other option.
In March, local Conservative MPs Richard Graham and Neil Carmichael continued to badly let down their constituents by speaking in support of GCC’s library plans in parliament. While Mr Carmichael described GCC’s plans as ‘sensible and forward thinking’, our inbox told a different story, with countless library users, including children and volunteers at library clubs for housebound people expressing their concerns over the plans, while protests were organised by local residents at threatened libraries.
On the 26th March, FoGL members joined other library campaigners from across the country in London to ‘march for the alternative’, with some of the first-time marchers among us interviewed for BBC national news.
April started with another trip to London, this time for FoGL campaigners to meet with policy officials from DCMS, who had finally managed to respond to our many months worth of emails and letters. We carefully explained our objections to GCC’s plans, and the case for DCMS intervention – ultimately pointlessly though, as DCMS and the responsible Minister Ed Vaizey, have been silent since.We encountered a much more receptive audience at the Gloucestershire Federation of the Women’s Institute, where FoGL were invited to speak in favour of a motion on the government retaining support for local public libraries, which had reached the final two of the selection process for the annual WI national campaign. Councillor Hawthorne had (somewhat bizarrely for someone who claims to understand the importance of libraries) agreed to speak against the motion, but pulled out at the last minute.
We also finally got to the bottom of Councillors Noble and Hawthorne’s oft-repeated mantra that ‘no libraries will close’ – apparently they don’t understand what a library is – glad we got that cleared up then.
May brought more protests, this time by children losing their mobile library service. The legal challenge by Public Interest Lawyers on behalf of a Gloucestershire resident was formally launched through the High Courts, and a date for a hearing to grant permission for judicial review was set for July. Councillor Hawthorne attempted a predictable re-writing of history in order to blame everyone but himself for the potentially costly and totally avoidable legal process now faced by the county.
June began with a formal complaint to GCC from former Assistant Head of the library service (and FoGL member) John Holland, that Councillor Noble had misleadingly claimed that deprivation indices had been considered when planning the library strategy. We were delighted to hear that the WI had voted to campaign for continued government support for public libraries at their national AGM, and were pleased to have ‘done our bit’ at the meeting in Gloucestershire in April.
Less welcome news was the first Gloucestershire library closure under the current cuts package (of the Homelink mobile service for elderly and disabled people), and Public Interest Lawyers obtained an injunction preventing any further closures before the High Court hearing on the 7th July.
Public Interest Lawyers also informed us that the Legal Services Commission expected a ‘community contribution’ towards any cases with a public benefit beyond the individual claimant (as in a case against library closures) and we launched a fundraising drive to raise the £10,000 – £15,ooo we expected would be required. Councillor Hawthorne continued to ‘spin’ that his library plans were what local community groups and the public wanted, while several of these same groups set the record straight publicly, whilst others offered their support to FoGL behind the scenes and even contributed to fundraising for the legal challenge.
In early July, several of us nervously set off for Birmingham to attend the High Court hearing which would decide whether Public Interest Lawyers were granted permission to proceed with judicial review against GCC. Permission was granted on all three counts put forward by the QC: 1) Potential failure to comply with the Public Libraries Act, 2) Potential failure to properly consider equality impacts, 3) Potential failure to consult properly. We now have to wait until late September when the case will be heard in full. In the meantime, an injunction is in place preventing GCC from implementing its plans before the hearing.
This month, August, FoGL were honoured to receive a visit from Children’s Laureate, and author of the massively popular ‘Gruffalo’ series Julia Donaldson. Julia contacted us to request a meeting, and spoke at length with FoGL campaigner John Holland about the cuts planned by GCC and our fight back. Julia has since commented on the Gloucestershire campaign in the national press.
Well, that brings us up the present day, and well-done if you’ve made it this far! This campaign has been soul-destroying at times, so I thought it important to reflect on exactly how much has been done and achieved. If GCC thought they were going to be able to sneak their library plans through with no opposition we have certainly proved them wrong!
Looking back on the events of the past twelve months (or 9 months counting from when I got involved with the campaign in November 2010) I have mixed feelings. I am very proud of the FoGL campaign and remain convinced that we are fighting on the right side in an important battle, but I am deeply saddened and angered by what these experiences have revealed about the state of local democracy and the attitude of some of our elected representatives towards their constituents.
This has never been about party politics (FoGL supporters are drawn from a range of political affiliations, and walks of life), yet we have been at best ignored by the GCC administration, and at worst insulted and dismissed as ‘professional troublemakers’, ‘militants’ and ‘the usual suspects’ (whatever that means). This is an appalling way to ‘engage’ with local voters. We are simply members of the public who want the best for our library service and our county, and wish desperately that the administration had paused and thought again (as they have been given ample opportunity and prompting to do over the last twelve months) before pursuing this ill-thought out and permanent path of destruction of a well-loved, well-used, cost-effective and widely beneficial public service.
I am also angry with DCMS – the central government body whose job it is to monitor and superintend councils’ provision of library services and intervene when necessary. Instead they have ummed and ahhed, and occasionally made sympathetic noises, but have done nothing that is of any use to library users facing the loss or severe reduction of their service – indeed recent reports suggest they are complict in councils’ destructive plans.
So, in Gloucestershire we have achieved a lot, but there are still many hurdles to overcome. We need to maintain pressure on our councillors and MPs by writing to them (even if we don’t get a reply), and we need to keep the issue in the local media (again through letter writing). This is something that everyone can help with, without much effort. The amount of ‘community contribution’ required towards the cost of the legal challenge is formidable (expected 10-15K) and fundraising continues, then there is the court case itself in September.
I would like to use this ‘birthday’ to say a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has joined with us, campaigned with and supported us on the journey so far. We hope you stick around for the next stage of the fight and new Friends of our libraries are always welcome too – our libraries are too important to lose!