Following Wednesday’s damming High Court ruling that their plans for our public library service were unlawful, one would have hoped that Council Leader Mark Hawthorne, Portfolio Holder Antonia Noble and the GCC administration would have shown a little contrition, and taken some time to absorb the judge’s ruling before turning their attention to formulating a better, more equitable, and LAWFUL strategy for the future of our public libraries.
Sadly this hasn’t happened. Since the judgement was announced, Cllr. Noble’s silence has been deafening (despite the fact she has presided over an unlawful neglect of equalities duties), whilst Cllr. Hawthorne has been busily telling everyone that the judgement doesn’t really matter, is based on a ‘small technical error’, and that the plans will be ultimately be the same. He also continues to repeat the fallacy that less cuts to libraries equals more cuts to social care, and that all community groups were ‘excited’ to be taking on council services.
Cllr Hawthorne has put pen to paper to give his take on matters in today’s Gloucestershire Echo and Citizen, and we were grateful to be given the opportunity to make our case too. You can read the article here, and an unedited version of our contribution is reproduced below.
Of course this is a victory for those fighting to protect our public library service, but what a shame it had to come to this. The GCC administration has been warned repeatedly that their plans placed them in breach of the law. Statements made to council on behalf of the 15,000 petition signatories gave this warning clearly, and opposition councillors ‘called in’ the plans back in February. These warnings were ignored – a testament to the arrogance of this administration. This arrogance has cost the county’s taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds, thrown at fighting a legal challenge which could have been avoided if only someone at Shire Hall had had the courage to say, ‘hang on, have we made a mistake?’
Sadly Cllr, Hawthorne is still unable to accept this. His recent media appearances attempt to downplay the ruling’s implications. He claims GCC were ‘tripped up on a technicality’, which Public Interest Lawyers say ‘ignores both the letter and spirit of the ruling’. Indeed, Mr Justice McKenna stated in his ruling that ‘the breach of equalities legislation is substantive, not a technical, error’, and decided to quash the library plans as a whole (not just for community libraries), and to award full costs. Cllr Hawthorne also thinks that GCC have been ‘given a clean bill of health’ on the 1964 Public Libraries Act and their consultation process. In fact the judge deferred to the secretary of state on the Act, and highlighted the ‘substantial inter-relationship between the three grounds’. It’s also worth remembering that much of the consultation only took place following pressure from campaigners – if GCC ‘won’ on this ground they have us to thank!
GCC must go back to the drawing board. New plans must represent a better deal for service users, especially those in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups – library users across the county will be watching closely. We understand the council faces a tough financial climate – mores the pity that they let this get all the way to the courts. But such savage cuts to a well used (3 million visits per year, 30% by children), and cheap (just over 1% of the council’s budget) service was never the answer – particularly as the service has already absorbed significant cuts, and was one of the most poorly funded library services in the country.
We hoped that the judgement could mark a fresh start, but Cllr. Hawthorne’s worrying statements question whether he can be trusted with the future of any of our public services. Nonetheless, FoGL wish to extend the olive branch, and invite Cllr. Hawthorne to attend an extraordinary meeting with library users (details to be announced shortly), where we hope a constructive dialogue can begin.