Nothing to laugh at in Northants

The crisis at Northamptonshire continues with sudden drastic cuts announced to library opening times with less than twenty-four hours notice and with the immediate withdrawal of the mobile library. Many of the libraries are now only open for one day per week. The Council has issued the following statement on the library’s website:

“The Section 114 Spending controls currently in place within Northamptonshire County Council restrict expenditure on recruitment, temporary staff or existing staff working overtime. As a direct consequence of this Northamptonshire County Council instruction, the library service (operated by First for Wellbeing) has to remove temporary staff and additional hours from its staffing allocation. This has a direct and immediate impact on the ability to keep libraries open.”

KMPG has also advised the cash-strapped council to close 21 of the smaller libraries or hand them over to volunteers. This from an authority once lauded by the Libraries Taskforce as a flagship, innovative, library service for others to emulate.

Although many authorities face difficult budget challenges some of the financial decisions made by the council appear ill-advised such as paying their ex-CEO, and ex-chair of the Taskforce, over £100k for simply retiring. It has also been revealed that the council re-engaged an ex-member of staff and paid them a £1,300-a-day consultancy fee, along with another member of staff  who was given a £50,000 pay-off, and then the firm she owned was  paid £650 per day to oversee an IT project.

These instances are the ones that have been made public so it has to be wondered at how many other examples exist of what is at best poor oversight of council expenditure.

Such payments will be a smack in the face to those library workers now facing job losses and redundancy and none will receive anything like the above rewards.

Apparently staff morale among the library workers is, not surprisingly, at rock bottom. My thoughts are with all the library staff caught up in these horrible circumstances and the uncertain future they face.

All of this is happening on the doorstep of Northamptonshire MP and Minister for libraries, Michael Ellis. Given the DCMS woefully inadequate response to other major library cuts nationally I have no reason to think that Mr Ellis will be any more likely to intervene than his predecessors. After, the root cause of all this distress can be directly laid at the feet of this government’s policies.

Lastly, given the rushed nature of the proposals no consideration seems to have been given to any form of consultation or provision under the Equalities Act. It will be interesting to see how the Council justifies such a move.

UPDATE:

As the only library body willing to publicly speak out on behalf of libraries Cilip has released a statement calling for the proposed cuts in Northamptonshire to be halted pending a national inquiry and are writing to the DCMS to intervene. They statement says:

“it is clear that the very significant cuts will result in a library service that can in no way be seen to be ‘comprehensive and efficient’, as required by the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. CILIP will be writing to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to call on them to mount an inquiry into this failure of provision. We urge Northamptonshire County Council to suspend the implementation of this decision pending any such inquiry.”

Nick Poole expressed Cilip’s solidarity with and support for all of the staff and library workers affected by the decision. He also urged CILIP members affected by the decision to make contact with the Member Services team for advice and support. Nick has also appeared on BBC Radio Northants challenging the Libraries Minister to intervene.

 

 

 

A Few Interesting Things!

It’s been a busy time recently and with so many things happening I haven’t managed to keep up with the number of posts I would like to write. So instead I’ll touch briefly on areas of interest and then follow through in greater depth at a later stage:

Trust me I’m a professional!

Cilip commissioned research by YouGov that revealed which professionals the public believe are most likely to provide trustworthy information. Librarians and library staff came in the top five. This is a real boost of confidence to the profession especially in an era where internet searches and over-reliance on Google by the public do not necessarily provide reliable and unbiased results.

Further details can be found at the dedicated area Trusted professional, which include infographics to share and links to a survey asking librarians what makes them a trusted professional. Those on Twitter can also use the hashtag #TrustedProfessional

The Arts Council Speaks

An interview with Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of the Arts Council was revealing in how libraries should reinvent themselves and remain relevant in contemporary society including adopting a more entrepreneurial approach. There was also an appeal regarding conceptual change in the profession with the explanation:

“We need to use that breadth of experience to help in particular places, because breadth of experience is like oxygen, you need it in the room, and you need to be open to it and you need to be prepared to breathe it – even if it feels as if its got a different smell from the air that you normally breathe.”

Just so! On a positive note it’s clear that Sir Nicholas is very knowledgeable about the arts and museums sector.

Sir Nicholas joined the Arts Council after 28 years at the Tate gallery and it has to be said his tenure was not without controversy. This included accusations of bullying within the organisation, outsourcing of jobs, staff being paid below the London living wage, and the removal of a staff canteen discount. Perhaps this is what Sir Nicholas means by adopting a more entrepreneurial attitude?

It’s quite strange really that as the development agency for public libraries the Arts council very rarely attracts much criticism from campaigners. After all, this is the agency which is mandated to oversee libraries, direct funding to libraries, and advise the government on libraries. If any agency has the authority to highlight the difficult situation libraries face to the government, it’s the Art Council. The fact they appear to have failed to do so should come as no surprise. Like any publicly funded body they are perhaps wary of causing offence that might affect the rather substantial grant they receive from Central Government to bother with something as simple, and dangerous, as speaking truth to power.

That ACE treats libraries as a poorer cousin was highlighted with the recent appointment of a Director for libraries and the Birmingham area, effectively making the focus on libraries a part-time one. In contrast the Museums Director was appointed as a full-time post and at a higher grade. This despite the fact that libraries attract far higher visitor numbers than museums and feed into a wider range of local and national government agenda priorities.

Libraries and co-location

Co-location of libraries with other council or cultural services is a controversial issue. With both proponents and detractors willing to argue for or against but with little or mainly anecdotal evidence to draw upon to prove the point.

Certainly, there appears a sound financial argument in co-locating services under one roof in terms of consolidating the council estate and reducing expenses such as utility costs and rates (NNDR). Further savings can also been made by merging staff roles across the combined services. Proving an increase in footfall is also relatively straightforward as the public come in to use multiple services.

However, this is where the issue becomes complex as increased footfall does not necessarily equate to improving other library measures such as increased loans, PN usage, and membership.

There are also obvious disadvantages to co-location such as decreased space for activities and stock, the use of generic customer services roles and the loss of library specific knowledge, and the dilution of the library brand.

The other factor is co-location is often the result of a new build/refurbishment to re-site the services, which attracts greater interest. This is nothing new. Over the years many new stand-alone libraries have opened and attracted new members and usage.

For example Beeston Library, Nottingham re-opened in August 2017 following extensive refurbishment. In the first two months the library received 30,000 visits, an increase from 21,000 in the same period in 2016, and over 800 new members joined the library. I suspect an extended range of activities and 10,000 new books were a significant factor. It’s almost certain that other new stand-alone libraries such has the recently opened Colliers Wood will experience a similar upsurge.

In other words it is the ‘novelty’ and greater promotion of such new builds/refurbishments that attracts the interest. My own opinion is that applies to co-located services as well.

While not excluding the wider range of services within libraries, there are many in the sector who argue that it is the provision of good quality book stock, as part of a strong core offer, that attracts and retains library users. I count myself amongst them. But again, much more in-depth research is required to evidence this.

That is not to say that libraries cannot benefit from being part of a wider cultural centre. The Story House in Chester and the new Central Library in Halifax are examples of this approach.

However, what has not been independently researched and proven is that libraries benefit from increased/sustained usage either by co-location or as part of a multi-use building with several council (or other) services.

The Shining a Light report for England indicated that access to other council services might encourage greater use of library services. However, this view was highest amongst non-users and those that rarely or never read books. Conversely regular users and prolific readers wanted better information about services and improving the range and quality of books.

So, the evidence is limited and further research is required particularly to show that non-users and irregular readers, coming into a multi-use building, are actually encouraged to become library members and users, and that such data is captured.

Given the greater spread and convenient locations of libraries compared to other council services it might just be that what non-users actually want is ease of access to services rather than necessarily wishing to use the library itself.

This highlights the complexity of co-location and lack of data around libraries as multi-use buildings. Without such evidence the danger is to conflate correlation with causation.

 

 

 

 

Damned if we don’t, damned if we do!

It was bound to happen sooner or later; a council would run out of money. The reason is rather simple: the removal of the central government grant coupled with increasing costs for social care and children services has, since 2010, caused an ever-widening gap between expenditure and income for all local authorities. This is what has happened to Northamptonshire Council, which according to the BBC:

“A cash-strapped local authority has imposed emergency spending controls as it faces “severe financial challenges”.
The section 114 notice bans all new expenditure at Northamptonshire County Council, with the exception of statutory services for protecting vulnerable people. Last month the government said an inspector would look into allegations of financial failings at the authority.”

But this is also the same ‘cash-strapped’ authority that recently paid its outgoing Chief Executive, Paul Blantern over £100,000 as part of a resignation payment. Let’s just consider that: a CEO of a failing local authority, that has banned all non-essential expenditure, was paid over £100,000 because he chose to resign!

As Alan Wylie highlighted via Twitter both Northamptonshire Council and Paul Blantern had been strong proponents of outsourcing council services. Even proposing reducing its staff force to a core of 150, while transferring out 4000 jobs to different service providers. These would be part owned by the Council but managed like private sector companies.

Paul Blantern was quoted as saying: “we are always having to be at the cutting edge, to be innovative and creative.” He also stated on the BBCs The Bottom Line that there was nothing he wouldn’t consider outsourcing.

No doubt this attitude helped in his selection as Chair of the Libraries Taskforce as it perfectly reflected government policy towards libraries: outsourcing, greater commercialisation, and major staff reductions.

Northamptonshire were also held up as an exemplar of the brave new world of libraries as the service was subsumed into a health dominated social enterprise ‘First for Wellbeing’. No doubt the outcome of one of Paul’s ‘innovative and creative’ solutions. An approach so in favour with government policy that the DCMS described the library service as trailblazing.

Ironic then that Northamptonshire is the first council in twenty years to issue a section 114 notice and warns there is a “significant risk” it will not produce a balanced budget this year, as required by law.

However, irony is quickly replaced by farce as one of the council’s cost saving proposals is selling its brand new headquarters, which cost £53million, and then leasing it back! Then again, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a council willing to aggrandise itself with a new £53m building during austerity and falling income should come so financially unstuck.

Unfortunately, libraries will not escape this act of monumental political and financial incompetence as proposals have been put forward to close up to 28 of the  county’s 36 libraries. Despite the CIC route that was meant to provide a long-term sustainable model for Northamptonshire libraries.

Given all the publicity and resources dedicated by the Libraries Taskforce into promoting outsourcing I wonder if we can look forward to a blog on how badly it can also go wrong. Somehow I doubt it.

Sadly, the pressure and ideological imperative for councils to outsource services means that libraries could well be damned if they don’t and then damned if they do!