Category Archives: Councils

The devil is in the detail

I had an interesting, if rather short, exchange recently on Twitter with Chris Bryant, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Culture. He was criticising Lincolnshire Council over their plans to force local communities to operate libraries. I asked how these plans differed to Sheffield’s and why attack one but not the other. To the more cynical amongst us the obvious answer being one is a Conservative council and the other Labour controlled.

I share his criticism of Lincolnshire but the real issue is that library closures and cuts traverse the political divide and are to be found in Labour as well as Tory authorities. Therefore, only attacking his opponent’s plans appears more petty political point scoring rather than a genuine concern about public libraries.

Mr Bryant did affirm that public libraries need leadership. If elected Mr Bryant will be in a position to provide such leadership – and let’s hope it’s better than the misapplied ‘distributed leadership’ the Arts Council offers – however, we have been here before when Ed Vaizey was in opposition. Support for public libraries is an admirable thing but not if Mr Bryant is unable to articulate how he will differ from the current incumbent whose non-interventionist approach and slavish commitment to localism has been so disastrous for libraries.

In a story in the Independent Mr Bryant accused the Government of “utterly failing” library users and said library closures had “accelerated rapidly” since the election.”

He then went on to say that “Labour would provide “genuine national leadership” in reversing the decline in library use, encourage greater cooperation between England’s 151 library authorities and give councils longer-term funding settlements so they can plan ahead better.

So far, so good. He also stated that “Libraries are a vital part of the social and cultural life of this country. They extend opportunities for people, whatever their background, to read, learn and explore and they help to bridge the widening inequality gap in the country.”

All highly commendable but also, unfortunately, short on detail, big on ‘soundbite’.  It is one thing to say you support libraries but quite another to state how you would support them. The devil, as always, is in the detail and Chris Bryant is not providing any.

Now Labour should be in a very strong position to have an informed view on libraries. Helen Goodman, Mr Bryant’s predecessor, began her own review of libraries last year and equally the review by William Sieghart is available to refer to. So there’s plenty of information and research for Mr Bryant to draw upon.  Also, as a Welsh MP, he can look to the Expert Review of Public Libraries in Wales for inspiration.

Perhaps he could make a commitment to introducing national standards for England, or creating a genuine oversight body, or merging library authorities (not just ‘encourage greater cooperation’ which quite frankly the current Government has tried to little effect). Perhaps he could indicate a desire to revisit the 1964 act and define clearly what a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service should actually be. Equally, Labour has pledged to boost Sure Start centres and re-expand the scheme should they be elected so perhaps Mr Bryant could make a similar commitment to public libraries. And then there’s the thorny issue of consistent and adequate funding.

Returning to the Twitter exchange, one point that emerged was Mr Bryant supports volunteer run libraries in ‘some circumstances’. What those circumstances are he failed to elaborate on. Unfortunately, sharing the same belief as his opponent, that volunteer libraries are part of the solution, will hardly inspire library staff and campaigners to view Labour as offering anything substantially different to the current government.

Before the conversation on Twitter I had already emailed Mr Bryant (twice) inviting him to share his views, just as Helen Goodman had done, about public libraries. I reiterated the invitation as part of the Twitter exchange. Whether or not he accepts remains to be seen but if he does let us hope for something more substantial than he’s offered so far.

Addendum (09/02/2015): Chris Bryant has called the handover to volunteers in Lincolnshire ‘exceptional‘. I keep coming across slightly different figures but it appears that Lincs has handed or will hand over 68% of libraries to volunteers. Lincolnshire is a Conservative controlled council. Sheffield, which is Labour controlled, has given over 46% of its libraries to volunteers. Coventry, also Labour run, is suggesting reducing its libraries from 17 to 5, a decrease of 70%.

So it seems ‘exceptional’ is fast becoming the norm…for both parties!

(Happy to be corrected on the above figures)

 

 

Pushing the boundaries

There was an interesting news story regarding the Met Police Commissioner’s comments that forces in England and Wales should merge and share resources with other police authorities or emergency services as a way of saving money and operating more effectively in the face of stringent cuts (Scotland has already adopted the approach and have a single merged service).

Now this is not just a salient reminder that even police forces are under pressure from the austerity measures but raises the issue once again of how public services should respond effectively to ever decreasing funding.

There is a lesson for library services here. In the rush to cut costs by reducing staff, service points, hours, stock funds, and introducing volunteers the one idea that has failed to gain ground with politicians is the idea of regional, rather than county/unitary, library services. However, there are many advantages to doing so including the sharing of expertise, back office functions, and merging staffing structures to achieve economies of scale.

I made a similar point in my own submission to Sieghart stating that we should seek to reduce the number of library authorities and merge services across local authority boundaries, either building on existing regional structures or creating new ones. This is nothing new and many within the profession including Cilip have made similar suggestions.

I have also argued for this approach in a previous post but unfortunately the idea continues to receive indifference at best and outright opposition at worse. Which highlights once again how local political expediency triumphs over innovation for delivering services.

I admit to finding it perplexing that more is not done in terms of merging libraries in different authorities that are geographically close, or larger library authorities delivering services for smaller ones such as Essex and Slough. Unfortunately, sharing library services is still the exception rather than the norm.

What’s not in doubt though is the spending commitments of the three mainstream political parties. The desire to protect funding for the NHS and education, as well as the rising cost of adult social care, will leave the rest of us scrabbling around for a smaller share of an ever decreasing budget.

The sharing of services across boundaries and different political affiliations might currently be unpalatable for many councils but in the not too distant future it may well become a financial necessity .

Dysfunctional and devalued

I’ve been quiet on the blogging front lately during which time there seems to have been a never ending stream of negative news about public library provision, either threatened closures or handing over to volunteers. Even in Wales, where in the main they have sought to protect library services, there is definitely a sea change driven by the continuing austerity measures and major reductions in funding. This was further reinforced by the details of the Autumn statement and the massive cuts to public spending that are being forecast. Given such projections it’s difficult not to be despondent about the future of public libraries at the moment.

This brings me to Sieghart, who appears to have finished his report and it is now with Ed Vaizey, no doubt glaring accusingly from a ministerial in-tray. If early indications are anything to go by it will make uncomfortable reading for the Minister as it seems to be the antithesis of his own approach and at odds with the expectations of localism and the big society. I suspect there will be a lot of pressure and horse trading to tone down those areas which make the current coalition’s approach to libraries look as bad as they genuinely are.

It also comes as no surprise that Sieghart has described the current system as dysfunctional. Many campaigners and those within the profession have been pointing out the same for a long time now. But it’s good that Sieghart appears to be so forthright and honest over the situation. It appears that the notion of standards, a national coordinating body, views about volunteers, and if earlier indications are anything to go by, libraries as trusts might also form part of the document. There’s a good piece about the awaited report by Guy Daines on the Cilip website.

Ian Anstice recently reported back from Spain, where there appears to be a general acceptance that libraries are more than just buildings and stock. There is apparently a third ingredient that makes libraries a ‘service’ rather than just a ‘function’. Yes, you’ve guessed it…the librarian! It is the professional element that allows us to manage and develop services, deliver on the universal offers, and contribute to the many local, regional, and national initiatives. This is in direct contrast to the view that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can run a library.

No wonder professional staff abroad are appalled at the changes and damage being done not just to individual services but to the profession as a whole in the UK.

Perhaps even more than closures the real damage is through the hollowing out effect while trumpeting that no libraries have been closed. This is one of the biggest divergences between the library profession and politicians. On one hand the profession points out quite rightly that libraries are more than just buildings and stock, that service quality and development also counts, and for that you need professionally qualified librarians. On the other is the politicians view that any unqualified, well meaning amateur…well, see above.

Equally, library services are increasingly being used as a shop front for council services, which is indicative of the narrow view of libraries as just buildings and thus an outlet for other services, rather than as a unique and valuable service within their own right. I am not against partnership working or authentic collaborations but restructuring and integration at this level are ‘cuts’ driven and have very little to do with improving operational efficiency or the strategic development of libraries.

Unfortunately, there appears to be another insidious thread worming its way into public libraries, which is the downgrading and disappearance of senior library roles. In my experience it seems that the role of Chief Librarian/Head of Service is being shunted down the management structure, ever further away from the senior echelons and decision makers. Obviously, this represents a loss of influence and while some HoS enjoy good working relationships with senior officers many have to wade through several layers of intervening management, each with their own agenda, to get the library message heard. It is one thing to say libraries must do more to influence key policy makers but the reality is one of services being corporately sidelined and merged with other areas, with the danger that libraries are devalued and no longer viewed as a distinctive service but just another council outlet.

Another worrying aspect is the deletion of HoS posts, with the resulting loss of substantial professional experience and knowledge, and the replacement (usually at a higher grade) by generic managers with little or no familiarity of the sector.

I am still idealistic enough (perhaps naively so!) to believe that it is the professional component that makes libraries a genuine service rather than merely a function. Whether this is a view shared by the Sieghart report we shall have to wait and see.

Who’s in the house?

Although not able to attend I’m looking forward to the Cilip debate this Saturday (27th September) to discuss the proposition: ‘This House believes Local Authorities are still the best way to deliver the public library service‘, with a panel contesting an issue that might have been inconceivable only a few short years ago. After all who else would deliver public library services! But the days of such surety are long gone thanks to the austerity measures of the past four years.

I have always been open in my own views around this issue, which is that local authorities are best placed to fund or commission library services but strategic development should be left to librarians and not councillors. The continuing long list of reductions and closures hardly inspires either the profession or public to put their trust in local authorities and only strengthens my belief that decisions are driven by misplaced ideology rather than sound business practices. In many ways it is the poor decision making by councils that has given rise to the myth that librarians lack business acumen when actually the reverse is true. Many librarians would relish the opportunity to have greater control and freedom over services rather than having to implement inadequately conceived ideas driven by local political expediency.

Library services should be in the hands of the staff themselves; to shape, develop, and deliver. Librarians have the depth of knowledge, expertise and experience to run an efficient service, and one that reflects a genuine partnership of community focused, rather than community led, libraries. The best way to achieve this in the current climate is, in my opinion, through a not-for-profit trust model. I would also hazard a guess that trusts will feature in William Sieghart’s report given that he has praised the Suffolk Libraries model on several occasions recently.

In the keynote speech to Cilip members at the recent AGM Sieghart also stated that urgent action was needed over libraries and likened the situation to Beeching’s closure of railway lines. However, despite the aspirational tone of the speech the unavoidable reality is that libraries, however delivered, need sustainable funding, not only to survive but also to develop. Therefore, it will be interesting to note what funding streams are identified as part of his report and how genuinely maintainable these will be. Equally, it would be a great pity for the report to concentrate solely on measures to keep libraries open without also addressing the issue of paid staff and professional librarians as being integral to service delivery.

One of the panelists, Ian Anstice of Public Library News fame, a strong proponent of public libraries, knows better than most how under pressure services are since he is the main source of news regarding changes to libraries nationally. The fact that this is achieved in his spare time is testament to Ian’s dedication and faith in the importance of libraries.

Another panelist, Biddy Fisher, should bring an interesting perspective as trustee of the Denby Dale Library.The friends group were instrumental in ensuring that the library continued to be run in conjunction with Kirklees Libraries and retain the services of a paid member of staff (albeit for a limited number of hours per week and with funding only agreed until September 2015). The approach of using a mix of staff and volunteers is becoming more common and an explanation by Biddy of how it came about can be seen here. I am sure that the group will be hoping for the council to continue with paid staff at the library but given the current news coming from Kirklees the future is looking rather uncertain.

Obviously, any debate around the subject needs to consider the dwindling settlement each year from national government to local authorities. Added to this are the soaring costs of both adult care and children’s services, which along with the austerity programme, is forcing massive cuts and radical change within the public sector. Until the matter of funding for social care and health services is addressed at a national level, expenditure locally will continue to increase to the detriment of nearly all other services. Whoever forms the next government will have to face the politically unpalatable issue of deciding whether or not to protect health budgets while so many other services suffer. This is the real context in which reductions to local services, including libraries, is set.

Brian Ashley, Director – Libraries, Arts Council England is also on the panel, and will no doubt be representing ACE’s view. I have never disguised the fact that I think libraries have been misplaced with the Arts Council, who fail to appreciate the full scope of what libraries do and try to shoehorn them into a mismatched arts agenda. I wonder if ACE readily funded library schemes not connected to the arts how many more Library Change Lives projects could be delivered.

I am also cautious about their links with Locality in that they commission a body whose core purpose is to support and enable community organisations to research issues around public libraries. It’s difficult to accept that a predetermined bias towards community led projects does not influence the outcomes of the reports, which calls into the question the credibility of its research. Given the resources available to ACE there appears little justification for not commissioning such work from an independent research organisation. Continually resourcing studies in support of community led libraries hardly inspires trust from librarians or campaigners who believe in the statutory principle of libraries and that paid staff are an essential element of the service.

Hopefully, another panelist, Andrew Coburn, former Secretary of the Library Campaign and UNISON activist, will be bringing the opinions of both campaigners and library staff to the table.

This is a important issue and the principle of local authorities as the best way to deliver library services has very real and practical implications for how services could be run in the future, so this is more than an academic exercise and should be treated as such. Perhaps this could be used as a prelude to a policy making exercise in which the outcome helps inform the formulation of a position statement for Cilip to take forward.

Because while discussion is essential in defining ideas ultimately what good is debate without action?

The insidious phrase!

One size does not fit all

Along with ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA), one other phrases that has gained in popularity when discussing changes to libraries is that one size does not fit all, usually followed by a reduction in the level of service! In the debate over library provision it has become one of the main declarations by both politicians and councillors to justify libraries leaving local authority control.

The phrase was used recently by William Sieghart when commenting on his report into the future of libraries. Whether the comments indicate a pragmatic approach towards libraries or one of political expediency – that is, taking us down the path the DCMS and ACE wish us to follow anyway – remains to be seen. Sieghart is still consulting so perhaps the final report will deliver more than his comments indicate.

As a profession, librarians have known for a long time that one size does not fit all, and in practice there has always been different levels of service and provision depending on library size, usage, and locality. What was common however was the effort to uphold standards and ensure all communities received a basic level of service regardless of location. In this sense one size did fit all. It was a concerted effort to provide and uphold the quality of service, particularly around the now defunct national standards

Unfortunately, the phrase has come to mean something more insidious: as an excuse to undermine professionally run and managed services and to justify off-loading libraries to community groups. It seems rather ironic that despite being told one size does not fit all there appears a fairly standard, uniform response by local authorities, which is to hand over libraries to volunteers. In classic doublethink terms community groups are apparently the one size that fits all!

Rather than involving the community to genuinely tailor and improve services – which is easily done through focus groups, friends groups, and volunteers in added value roles for instance – the phrase is now used to cloak cuts and pressure communities into taking on libraries regardless of local opinion or capacity. This was highlighted tellingly in a comment by Liz Waterland Chairwoman of The Friends of Deeping Library in April this year:

‘May I correct an impression that readers may have gained, following your news item about Nick Worth’s opinions on library closures. The word ‘volunteers’ is only correct in so far as we are unpaid and are preparing to run a Community Library should we have to. We haven’t volunteered to run a library; we are being forced to do so because Lincolnshire County Council have threatened us with the closure of our popular and well used facility if we don’t. We will do our very best to step in if we have to but we would much rather that our library stayed open as the professionally run, properly staffed and funded community asset that it is at present. Neither alternative, of closure or community take over, is of our choice; we are being forced into this position because we are not willing to see the end of our library in The Deepings. The Friends of Deeping Library have been told we must ‘do it or die’ – the choice between them is NOT voluntary!’

Localism

The idea that one size does not fit all has in part been driven by the principle of localism. The rationale being that councils and communities have a greater say in how funding is allocated and spent locally. However, as the comment above highlights local opinion is often over-ridden in the drive to deliver savings.

While many aspects of localism are praiseworthy, in practice it has been used to justify deep cuts to relatively small areas of council spending. A point noted by the chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association recently:

‘The cuts are falling disproportionately on leisure, libraries, culture, art, transport…and environmental health. The smaller services…Some of those smaller services will no longer be viable. You cannot continuously improve a service that you’ve cut by 40%. It’s just a logical fallacy. We need to think very carefully about the future of some of these smaller services.’

Such cuts are set to continue and the LGA warned yet again that:

‘In spite of cuts, local authorities will continue to try and protect spending on adult social care next year as much as possible, which could be at the expense of popular services like buses, libraries and leisure centres.’

So given that large parts of council budgets include social services or protected priority areas the actual pot that local communities can influence is relatively small.

Professionalism

The attitude underlying the phrase, and indeed the localism agenda itself, appears to be a rejection of professionalism in the mistaken belief that it is more important for services to be community rather than expertly run. This certainly seems to be the case for libraries (many would also argue that the same view applies to free schools).

One point in favour is that it allegedly gives local communities more influence in local service delivery. But having a say in library services and running them are completely different. The first is a genuine impulse to involve and thus improve services, the second to cut costs and operate with unpaid labour, with the lessening of expertise and quality this entails.

Despite the spin about engaging communities and given them a greater say ultimately it is about savings and as such it is disingenuous to claim that services can be improved in the face of severe budget cuts and reduced professional input.

Equality

The one size does not fit all approach also undermines the progressive impulse of libraries towards alleviating inequality in terms of learning, health, social wellbeing, and digital inclusion, amongst others. The continuing drive towards community managed libraries risks the creation of a two-tier service that exacerbates rather than alleviates inequality.

There is also a misguided belief that communities possess either individuals or groups with the capacity and resilience to deliver local services. Recently, a group of volunteers in Lincolnshire resigned en masse in response to the increasing and unrealistic demands made upon them by the local council.

Unfortunately, the slogan has now become a superficial excuse to impose inferior levels of provision on communities. It is an approach that also favours higher level socio-economic groups and disadvantages socially deprived areas.

Localism vs regionalism?

Localism is also counterproductive to wider approaches such as the universal offers, the desire to reintroduce national standards, and a more strategic approach to libraries that we see in Northern Ireland and Wales. Greater interoperability between local authorities was one of the main points made by both campaigners and organisations in submissions to Seighart. For instance, Cilip argued that:

In England 151 authorities still run their own library services with a tiny number of exceptions. Some of these are very small, and the fact that there are so many authorities must lead us to question whether the service overall is efficient…there are lessons that could be learnt from the rest of the UK.

In Northern Ireland, five former Education and Library Boards have become one new authority, the Northern Ireland Library Authority (NILA) operating outside Government. The economies of scale achieved have helped NILA deal more effectively with the reductions in funding it has faced recently.

In Wales there are now also serious proposals to reduce the current twenty two local authorities by about half to improve the cost efficiency of service delivery.”

From his comments Sieghart seems to have rejected this proposition. While I think it is unlikely that the national approach we see in Northern Ireland would genuinely work in England there is no reason why reducing the number of library authorities and operating on a regional basis would not be effective.

Certainly, greater regional autonomy and power was the basis of Lord Heseltine’s No stone unturned: in pursuit of growth report, and a similar approach advocated recently by the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. However, it is difficult to envisage how such a regional approach could work without first removing responsibility from individual local authorities and amending the 1964 Act.

Words matter

Terminology matters. In the battle of ideology over library services, words and phrases dictate the underlying philosophy and attitudes towards current and future provision. The over-use of trite phrases such as one size does not fit all risks rendering quite complex arguments into meaningless sound-bites and souring genuine dialogue between councils and campaigners over very real budgetary constraints and challenges.

Sometimes one size does indeed not fit all but equally when it comes to quality and standards, sometimes it can. In contrast, localism is creating only fragmentation, inequality, and a hodge-podge of inferior library provision.

A Favourable Outcome?

It was heartening to see that a legal fund set up by the Save Lincolnshire Libraries group has received a donation of £1000 from the Library Campaign towards the cost of the judicial review, which is set to take place at the High Court in London on July 8th & 9th. A resident has challenged Lincolnshire Council’s proposals to cut the library service by £2 million and the outcome of the case is likely to have wide ranging implications nationally, producing either jubilation or despair depending which side of the argument you are on.

Like many, I am hoping for a judgment that favours the plaintiff and gives pause to other councils thinking of making deep and damaging cuts to library services. If there is a victory then the credit must go to the tenacity of all those involved in the Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaign.

Although the challenge has been allowed on four grounds the area most of us will be watching closely is:

‘That if the cuts go ahead Lincolnshire’s Library Service will no longer be comprehensive and efficient and therefore will breach the national requirements’

However – and unfortunately there is always a ‘however’ – defining what those national requirements are will be a tricky business indeed. Even if the review is successful I suspect it will be beyond the Court’s ability (or remit) to define what a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service should be and the outcome is likely to depend on the Court interpreting that the extent of the cuts undermines the principle of comprehensiveness and therefore the Council will fail in its obligation under the 1964 act.

Equally, a successful outcome, like previous reviews elsewhere, could be won on the grounds of a flawed technical process such as a poor equalities assessment (one of the grounds of the challenge). Unfortunately, this would be a lesser victory as it could potentially allow the Council to rectify the process and then still carry out its plans.

Regrettably, even a victory doesn’t necessarily mean that no reductions will take place and I suspect the judgement will only require the Council scale back on the proposed cuts and closures. Perhaps the real argument will centre on not that the Council is cutting library services at all, just that they are cutting too much!

The one strand in the challenge that has the capacity to put a twist in the tale is:

‘That the Council failed to properly consider the proposal by Greenwich Leisure Limited (a not for profit agency who had bid to run the library service). As a result the Council had failed in its duties under the Localism Act (1)’

Potentially this could mean that GLL will be given the opportunity to bid to run library services in Lincolnshire once again. The big question will be are they able to do it without implementing reductions and closures themselves? It would be a bold assertion to say they could until the Council actually commits to a figure that it’s willing to pay for the operation of the library service.

It would be rather ironic if Lincolnshire campaigners later found themselves at odds over one of the grounds of the judicial review that they campaigned so hard for!

Obviously, the Court could go the other way and rule in favour of Lincolnshire Council, in which case it really will be open season on library services the length and breadth of the country.