It’s difficult to take a balanced view of public libraries at the moment. Concentrating overly on bad news around closures and cuts appears so much doom-mongering. Equally, highlighting only positive news stories smacks of pollyanaism. Obviously, both aspects exist and will differ from region to region, authority to authority, and even community to community within relatively close proximity. Amongst the cuts there is still opportunity to find examples of good practice, valuable partnership working, and innovation within the sector.
That said, the bad news does appear to have the upper hand at the moment, especially with the announcement that local councils face an ever deepening hole in their finances: A story in the Bookseller outlines how:
“According to the Local Government Association (LGA), the long-term funding crisis means local government will continue to face an overall funding gap of £5.8bn by 2020 and that more than two thirds of the 375 councils in England and Wales will be forced to find millions in savings to plug the funding gaps in 2017/18.”
This was put into stark context with a warning from the Leader of Liverpool Council that:
‘…even if he closed all 19 libraries in the city and its nine sports centres, stopped maintaining its 140 parks, halted all highway repairs and street cleaning and switched off 50,000 streetlights, he would save only £68m—which is £22m short of what he must cut by 2020. So there will have to be a further 10% reduction in the social-care budget.’
Many other councils are facing equally unenviable choices, which is the consequence of a path determined by the coalition government in 2010. According to the government, at the start of the 2010 almost 80% of council expenditure was financed by the central government grant but by 2020 this will have reduced to 5% with the ultimate aim that it will disappear altogether.
The consequences for libraries are obvious, with a litany of severe cuts from all around the country, and figures showing that UK libraries had lost £25m from their budgets in just one year. Nick Poole has warned that library closures will double unless immediate action is taken, stating that:
“We have already lost 340 libraries over the past eight years and we think that unless immediate action is taken, we stand to lose the same number over the next five years.”
This leaves bodies like the Libraries Taskforce, SCL and ACE in a difficult position. Tasked with developing libraries it seems the best that can be assumed is a slow rout with an eventual retreat in many areas to the consolidation of a central library underpinned by varying levels and quality of community provision.
I am reminded of the image of the Little Dutch Boy holding back the incoming flood, with the Taskforce vainly attempting to stop the torrent of cuts while the dyke around them steadily spouts leaks labelled Kirklees, Plymouth, Walsall, West Berkshire, Bristol, Bury, Lancashire…the difference being, in the story at least, the Little Dutch Boy was successful at plugging the gap!
Or to use a bleaker literary reference the sector is ‘not waving but drowning.’
Unfortunately, the Taskforce is operating to a deeply flawed report that is hopelessly outdated just a mere two years on, with little in Ambition to offer concrete help or financial support. But most of all it is curtailed by political intransigence.
To a large extent the malaise goes even deeper than just funding. Councils have shown themselves to be unimaginative at best and inept at worse when dealing with library services. Parochial to an incomprehensible degree, very little has been done to genuinely merge services across boundaries or treat them as part of a national infrastructure. Localism is part of the problem not the solution.
But let me end on a positive note, which is the re-launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries. So welcome to the new Chair, Gill Furniss MP, who stated that:
“I was brought up on a council estate in Sheffield and my dad was a reader. When I was four he took me with him to the public library and it was like walking into an Aladdin’s cave…If my dad hadn’t taken me to that library I do not think I would be stood here as a Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. I’ve got my career and the knowledge it gave me which drove me on to go and get a degree and eventually become a Councillor.”
Whether the APPG is capable of providing the life-line desperately needed by the sector remains to be seen.