This is a guest post from Revd Dr Keith Hebden, who helped organise protests aginst the closure of Matson Library (one of the most deprived communities in Gloucestershire) earlier this year.
One Battle is Won but the Struggle Goes on
On Wednesday 16 November 2011 a ruling was finally given on Gloucestershire County Council’s decision to target some of the poorest communities in the county for the greatest cuts in library services. The judge found in favour of local communities: the council had acted “unlawfully”. What does this tell us about the new politics and what do we do now?
Like most campaigns it is the people behind the scenes who have worked the hardest. Most especially the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries who have provided a framework for local struggles. Tonight we need to celebrate. I’ll definitely be raising several glasses to Judge McKenna this evening. But tomorrow the hard work begins again.
And the people who have suffered under the ongoing uncertainty are many. Librarians who no longer feel valued and experience or fear job loss. Library users have been badly let down. And local community groups who have worked hard to save the libraries in one form or another while trying to maintain hard-won trust among one another.
What have we learned?
David Cameron’s words, “we’re all in this together” have become infamous because of how observably untrue they are. We all knew it, the public interest lawyers representing those worst affected by library service cuts – the elderly, single parents, the less mobile – knew it too. And it’s cold comfort that a judge has formally declared it.
If we’re all in this together, some of us are more in it than others. Bankers continue to get astronomical bonuses while County Councils struggle with budget cuts and a long-standing inability to represent those most vulnerable.
Big Society may not have been meant as a sneaky way to introduce cuts in public services but that is how it has been used. ‘Saving’ a library is not the same as shifting responsibility for the library onto the voluntary sector.
Margaret Thatcher, who’s dystopia still haunts us all, was all about rolling back the state but only so that business – not community – could take over. The New Labour Project and the Big Society have just been re-branded versions of Thatcher’s ‘Selfish Society’: the real cause of social unrest.
Big Society only makes sense if you read it as ‘Big Business Society’. Fat Cats don’t lobby governments anymore now it’s politicians lobbying the Fat Cat’s.
Where are we going?
Our libraries are no less under threat than they were before the judge ruled in favour of the campaign. Sadly Antonia Noble has been quietly asset stripping our library service – books have been sold off for a pound while stocks have not been replenished; redundancies have been encouraged without new appointments.
If they cannot close our libraries by overt unfairness they will attempt to close them by stealth; if that happens we won’t have a public or ‘community run’ library. Jesus tells the story of a person being exorcised of one evil only to discover seven more evil spirits have taken residence.
We need to do more than campaign to keep our libraries open. We need to work to keep our libraries open. Encouraging new library members; working with our librarians to reach out to the community; making use of the library our selves are vital ongoing struggles. We need to occupy our libraries – not with tented cities but with eager readers.
Most of all we need to listen carefully to those who no longer feel they belong to local libraries and find out why. Over the course of the campaign I’ve realised that fining late returns without supporting those of us with disorganised lives actively discourages repeat library usage. Fining people is like putting a sign outside saying “Not Welcome,” especially in areas where people have limited income.
We need new solutions drawn from the communities themselves. Consultation needs to be about listening then planning not planning then telling. What the ruling against Gloucestershire County Council has shown us is that our councillors to do not have the ability to make this decision without our help. Now we need to show them how it’s done.
Revd Dr Keith Hebden is an Anglican Priest and curate in Matson, Gloucester.