Not Waving but Drowning

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Parish or Bust!

A new phrase is set to enter the lexicon of library reductions: ‘parishing!’. It’s something I’ve warned about in previous posts but has mainly happened at a low level and very much under the radar. However, some recent high profile examples are bringing the issue to the fore. Parishing is the natural outcome of the localism and devolution agendas and in simple terms is the process whereby local authorities pass responsibility for universal and discretionary services to parish and town councils.

This is a rather cynical political ploy. The rationale being that councils don’t want to raise taxes above the referendum threshold but parish councils can raise the local precept to pay for services. With many councils set to raise the council tax by almost 4% this represents a double whammy of tax hikes for local communities, with low income families particularly vulnerable.

According to the BBC ‘thousands of parish and town councils in England increased their share of the annual bill, raising £18.9m in extra funds.’ The analysis shows that 5,217 parish and town councils increased the bill, 3,659 increased the basic demand by above 1.99%, and 60 parish councils at least doubled their bills in 2015-16. This is set to continue in the 2016-17 financial year with some parish and town councils significantly raising the precept.

What the article makes clear is the reason for the rises is to take on services previously provided by the principal local authority such as libraries, youth provision, and community buildings.

This is the approach being proposed by Cornwall under a devolution agenda. The Council’s Cabinet Member for Localism, Jeremy Rowe states

“Across Cornwall, our most significant current devolution priority is in relation to libraries and one stop shops, but there are a number of other exciting devolution projects underway locally, relating to a wide range of services and assets including open spaces, recreational facilities and community buildings.”

However, it’s not just in Cornwall but across many counties and unitary authorities that devolution is the catalyst for forcing additional responsibility onto lower tier councils and increasing precepts.

The justification for parish and town councils taking on services, such as libraries, is that if local people want the service then local people should pay for it. Unfortunately, such an approach and attitude lends itself to increasing social inequality between those communities that can afford services and those that cannot. It also continues the decline and fragmentation of library services, which further exacerbates such inequality.

This is rather at odds with the aim of creating robust, sustainable communities and services. Instead it appears a desperate  race to the bottom to provide the least service for the least cost, with some communities in danger of losing out altogether.

Equally, how parish councils taking on libraries fits into the 1964 Act remains to be seen and perhaps challenged. What is almost a certainty under these proposals is more job losses for library staff, replacement by volunteers, and a fall in the quality of service provision.

So it seems that along with localism and devolution, ‘parishing’ is yet another disingenuous term for drastic cuts to important local services including libraries.