As a library campaigner and commentator I am particularly interested when libraries spin out of local authority control. It’s an issue I have written about many times and therefore tend to keep an eye on those proposing such a route.
Dudley is one such service. In October 2015 Public Library News highlighted the aim of Dudley Council to create an employee-led mutual with a planned launch date of April 2016. Given that such decisions require planning well in advance (or at least should do) I have no doubt that library staff, corporate officers, and councillors had been in discussions for a long time.
In the news story a spokesperson for the council made clear that the mutual would be “where council employees set up a new organisation separate to the local authority to continue to deliver public services.” A three-month public consultation was planned and for talks with staff, unions and other stakeholders.
Rachel Harris, the cabinet member responsible for libraries said:
“As a community council we are committed to delivering high quality services to our existing customers and at the same time providing opportunities to widen access to community services. An employee-led mutual creates opportunities to deliver professionally led services supported by the community in a way that local people can be proud of.”
In April 2016 it was announced that the library service would be run as a ‘not-for-profit mutual’. Councillor Harris is quoted as saying that this was a new era for the borough and described it as a ‘absolutely historic occasion for this council’.
It was reported that the new organisation would be run by staff but have community, employee and council involvement at board level.
So far, so good. Despite the cutbacks and financial challenges Dudley Council had made the decision to place the future of the library service firmly in the hands of the people who knew it best, the library staff themselves. This was certainly the position the council promoted to the public during the consultation exercise.
It was also the preferred option of the Council as the Cabinet Report made abundantly clear:
- “Consultation with user groups about the Mutual model has been done by local staff in each setting.” (point4)
- “There has been a specific comment about the mutual model from one of the Friends of Libraries groups who wanted to know more about the business case and how the Friends would work with the library if it was run from within a staff led mutual.” (point 5)
- “There have been helpful and encouraging comments from one partner organisation where the library is co-located in their building about the Mutual model and how this could improve further joint working.” (point 6)
- “Frequently Asked Questions continue to be compiled and a regular staff mutual newsletter began in January. Staff are taking part in workstreams, including a workshop on branding for the Mutual.” (point 8)
- ” A Mutual is an umbrella term for an organisation run for the benefit of its members, who have active and direct involvement whether as employees, suppliers or the community. Meta-Value recommends an Employee-led Mutual with charitable status as the model for LAAL, which would enable greater income growth. Membership would be open to employees and members of the community with a Board which includes a nominated Council representative. York Explore has spun-out using this model.” (point 14)
- “On 28th October 2015, Cabinet approved the following: in principle, the setting up an employee-led Mutual for LAAL, with a 5 year Business Plan, subject to consultation with staff and the public and the decision of full Council in February” (point 15)
In fact the whole report is in favour of the proposal to set-up a ‘staff led mutual’, so you would be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what would happen. Certainly both the public and staff were led to believe this. So positive was the proposal to establish a staff led mutual that Dudley Council even prepared a candidate’s pack for a Treasurer of the newly created model.
Dudley was also awarded £42,000 as part of the Mutuals Support Programme for support around ‘legal governance, business planning and financial modelling, stakeholder engagement support and transition.’
Therefore, it came as a great shock when it was announced that GLL was instead to step in and take on the running of Dudley’s Libraries.
Now there several puzzling areas here:
- How can GLL take on the running of Dudley libraries, including TUPEing staff over, and yet the Council still claim that a staff-led working arrangement has been created? A ‘staff-led’ mutual is precisely that: a service owned and run by the staff, for the benefit of the community in which each member of staff has a vote to elect trustees and local residents are able to become members. This is a long way from how GLL operates.
- Where, when, how and whom made the decision to appoint GLL? Like many Councils decision-making takes place in a labyrinth of different committees. However, such decisions should be clear via Cabinet or Scrutiny minutes etc. I’ve made a request to DMBC for details but have not yet received an answer.
- Did the funding given to Dudley via the Mutuals Support Programme allow for the awarding of the contract to a different provider?
I am actively following through on these questions and will publish a further post when (if!) I get answers.
One thing that is clear though is that both staff and the public have been misled and misinformed over the proposals. Neither group have been consulted or engaged with over the process and the decision to award the contract appears shrouded in council bureaucratic fog.
I hope that residents and campaigners challenge this bit of rather dodgy decision making. That Dudley Council quickly comes to its sense and reverses the agreement with GLL and awards it to where it properly belongs; to the staff and residents of Dudley.