Parish Councils, Localism & Libraries

I’ve previously written about the trend of moving services over to Parish and Town Councils, which at the time appeared not to have gained much notice in library campaigning circles.

This development has gained traction with more and more authorities looking to second tier councils to take responsibility for services, including libraries (single tier Unitary or Metropolitan Authorities operate slightly differently).

The rationale being that first tier authorities e.g. County, District or Borough Councils are capped by central government in terms of raising council tax but parish councils are not. Previously this stood at 2% but the 2016-17 financial year saw the Government propose a threshold of 4% for local authorities with social care responsibilities and 2% for district councils.

Any proposed rise above this limit would require a local referendum, which few councils have the appetite for. Currently, parish and town councils are not subject to such limitations and can raise precepts above the 2% threshold. Thus, cash-strapped local authorities have sought to exploit this loop-hole to pass services downwards.

The transfer of responsibility has been window-dressed in the terminology of Localism: the desire to  encourage decision making at the lowest practical level of local government in order to decide what level of services should continue e.g. street cleaning and grounds maintenance.

However, regardless of the jargon used it is not the desire to empower communities that is the driving force but the harsh financial settlement imposed by central government year on year on councils. Unfortunately, with no lessening of the overall council tax, plus a rise in the local precept, many people regard this as paying twice for the same service.

It also puts greater pressure on parish councils not only to provide additional services but to raise income and resources within a small locality. This is coupled with a fear that continuing excessive rises in the precept will lead to the introduction of a cap similar to the limit on first tier authorities. There are also technical issues around ‘General Powers of Competence’ and the need to employ a qualified Clerk in order to deliver such services.

The counter-argument runs that if local people do not see the value in a particular service then it will discontinue, with the principle that communities will only get those amenities they are willing to pay for.

In practice this leads to another two-tier model of winners and losers. The winners are those lucky enough to live in an affluent parish, with an articulate community willing to save their local library. The losers are those communities without the social structure to mount a robust defence, which will see library provision disappear.

This is the downside of localism. Relocating services not to empower communities but to divest financial responsibility and place libraries in a more precarious position so that if they fail the blame lies with the local community and not the local authority.

Pragmatic, a cynical ploy, or just a matter of financial survival for the local authority? Sadly, in the current political and financial climate, it’s likely to be all three.

 

The Price of Everything…

Regardless of any other reservations campaigners might have about the Libraries Taskforce there should be no argument about the quality of the recent series of posts around the theme of how libraries deliver.

The seven posts highlight a core set of nationally important outcomes around literacy, culture, communities, prosperity, digital, wellbeing and lifelong learning. As a valuable promotional tool for campaigners and library staff alike the series evidence how vital the work of libraries are, not just nationally, but to local communities.

I would encourage all librarians to ensure that their lead members and senior corporate officers are aware of the posts.  

For me, the series shows that even amongst continuing bad news around library cuts it’s still not difficult to find exemplars of innovative library developments and the positive and demonstrable impact such services have on users. The mounting evidence reveals what those involved in libraries have known for a long time; that is, the essential societal, educational, and economic benefits that libraries bring.

Another project that will hopefully provide further evidence is the Arts Council funding to Libraries Unlimited and Exeter University’s Business School to run a two year research project around the social value of libraries. 

In practice this is what I believe R. David Lankes meant when he challenged UK libraries to follow their US counterparts and take control of the narrative around libraries and to demonstrate their worth to the wider public and politicians alike.

The rationale being that a positive message around the beneficial effects of libraries to decision makers would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation, resulting ultimately in a lessening of closures and cuts.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened and it’s not for want of understanding by decision makers or profile-raising activity within the sector.

There are many eloquent advocates for libraries both within and outwith the profession, from big name authors, actors, and politicians, to high profile public organisations such as the BBC, to a host of ordinary people campaigning to save their libraries at a local level. Libraries are rarely out of the local and national newspapers.

A recent example of support for libraries is from the Big Issue founder, Lord Bird. In an excellent and well informed speech to the House of Lords around the difficulties facing libraries and small booksellers he highlighted the many positives that libraries bring and the consequences of closing them.

So the message for libraries is clearly out there, the narrative is changing, despite the still occasional uninformed comment from individual politicians and councillors.

Unfortunately, the underlying challenge is not one of narrative but funding; not messaging but money.

As Baroness Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House publishing group stated during the Lord’s debate:

“Central government also need to address the funding deficit in local authorities, where competing essential services too often result in library closures. Our trajectory towards one library per 50,000 people is simply a disaster.”

And this is the single biggest challenge for those parties involved at the strategic level nationally; the DCMS, Taskforce, Arts Council, Cilip, LGA, SCL etc. The solution needed is sourcing funding streams that provide ongoing revenue rather than just project based funds.

 The Taskforce has also set out to collect and publish a model data set for libraries with the aim that:

“…access to timely, accurate, comparable library data is critical to enabling the library sector and users to monitor the delivery of library services and improve their quality. This includes everything from the information librarians need to manage their service day-to-day and that decision makers need to consider the strategic direction on library service provision, to the facts that will inform anyone who wants to know how their local service fits into the national picture.”

This will help provide a regular insight into the state of public libraries in England. It will be interesting to note as the data is released if continuing advocacy has any real impact on slowing down or reversing the rate of attrition amongst services and staff.

One aspect of the library story, unpalatable as it might be, is that libraries will continue to decline, not for want of being valued, but due to simple, unforgiving economics.

To use a common idiom ‘money talks’ and that is the real narrative that needs addressing. Especially against a government economic agenda that knows the “price of everything and the value of nothing.”

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Addendum: reply from Nick Poole:

Leon, as ever, you raise arguably the central point in terms of where we go next with the library lobby. I would argue that we have always had ‘hearts and minds’, but have lacked influence and evidence. Now, thanks to the coordinated efforts of individuals and organisations across the sector, we are securing both. But these things are only useful if we are crystal clear about the tactics we are deploying and the end-game we are looking to achieve.

We have to assume that our objective is to secure the outcomes which only a great library service can deliver for our society. It follows that we should not be closed to the idea of progress – we’re not looking to prevent any library from closing ever, but to replace the current chaotic culture of financially-motivated closure, hollowing-out and volunteerism with an ongoing, effective mechanism for the management of our capacity according to clear evidence of need, supported by professionals who know what they are doing and are committed to delivering the best possible service for the people who depend on them.

This needs money, as you rightly say, but I think we need to be clear about what – precisely – we mean. Which means being absolutely clear about some key principles:

– Whichever side of the political spectrum you are on, the British electorate voted for a Government in 2015 which clearly signalled an agenda based on austerity, cuts to public services and diminishing Local Authority budgets. We may see a reversal of this policy under the new Government or following a General Election, but for the time being we are not going to reverse the dominant economic policy of low taxes and diminishing investment in public services.

– This means that public library services are intrinsically linked to a host (Local Government) that will continue to see significant real-terms losses in cash income (mostly likely in the aftermath of the Autumn Statement on the 23rd November). This leaves us with four options:

i) Seek Government intervention to ring-fence Local Authority funding for libraries, which would fly in the face of Treasury policy and the Government’s preference for localism. I have looked into the eyes of the people that would be responsible for trying to implement this and see no appetite for doing so at all;

ii) Encourage the ‘good’ Authorities (the ones that are managing to sustain investment in public libraries despite budget cuts) to continue their support by celebrating their actions in defence of libraries and providing real, credible evidence of the positive impact of their support for their local communities and economy;

iii) Discourage the ‘bad’ Authorities (the ones that are closing libraries, transitioning too rapidly into unsustainable governance models, cashing in on estate and building stock with scant regard for their statutory duties) through public intervention, the intervention of DCMS and – where necessary – direct action, local campaigning and local media activity;

iv) Support the ‘struggling’ Authorities (the ones where there genuinely isn’t the money to deliver a full statutory service, nor is there likely to be from business rates, Council Tax and other local revenues) to make informed decisions which focus on medium to long-term user need and outcomes over in-year cash savings.

– If we can stabilise the ‘core’ investment in library services through Local Authorities, then as you say it follows that we need to look to where new and additional sources of development investment may come from (in other words, if we can stop the rot – financially – we need money to invest in improvements). There are really 3 possibilities here:

i) That we address the question of how lottery funding is made available to libraries through the Arts Council England, and whether this supports the kind of core development (as opposed to a cycle of projects) which public libraries need. We have argued many times that libraries need the same kind of development support from the Arts Council that museums currently receive – a dedicated team, a UK-wide funded Museum Development Network, a clear Accreditation Scheme (and associated quality expectations) and dedicated ‘Resilience Funding’ to help strengthen the core delivery of services;

ii) That we petition the Government (as was included in our briefing to the Lords debate) for an Emergency Relief Fund to help libraries escape the short-term cycle of in-year cuts to staffing and buy time to transition to a more sustainable footing (emergency relief funding was made available by the Arts Council in 2013-14 to help struggling arts organisations transition into new, more sustainable operations);

iii) That we seek to create an alternate stream of Improvement, Development and Transitional funding for public libraries which is targeted specifically at strengthening the resilience of the public library sector.

– Finally, we are currently prone to the accusation that public libraries already receive a significant amount of taxpayer investment every year. Depending on which source (and which Nation) you take as your focus, the UK taxpayer spends between £640m and £715m on public libraries each year. It is too easy to dismiss or claims for support on the basis that this is already a significant amount of public money. With this in mind, we need to be absolutely sure that we are doing everything in our power to minimise duplication, reduce complexity, negotiate better prices for products, services and content – which also means looking at issues like shared data platforms, consortium procurement, bringing Authorities together and encouraging region-level planning and collaboration.

So, effectively from this our tactics to address your point about money would be:

1) Slow and eventually stem the rot of ‘core’ investment in libraries by Local Authorities

2) Improve the availability of development funding to help public libraries develop, improve and promote their services

3) Review the way we currently spend money either locally, nationally or (most likely) as natural clusters of library services

Unless we drive these 3 priorities collectively as a sector with focus and tactical impact, the best-intentioned ambition for public libraries won’t have a material impact on the financial realities so long as the dominant political and economic agenda remains a combination of localism, devolution and austerity.