Too Many Chefs…

Well another general election is upon us and sooner than most could have predicted. The indications are the Tories are on course for another victory with the only point being how large the majority will be. That said, polls have been wrong before so we can but hope.

Labour have at least mentioned libraries in their manifesto with a promise to increase council funding and reintroduce Library Standards. Both are very welcome but for me miss the main challenge facing the sector.

Unfortunately, both parties offer little in the way of innovation. For the Tories it will be the continuing path of localism and devolution leading to even greater fragmentation of the sector. For Labour it is primarily a funding issue. However, funding is only part of the overall challenge, what’s really needed is addressing the structural issues facing the sector.

There has been a tendency to focus on funding and to apportion the lack of financial support as the main reason for the current crisis in libraries. However, the problem goes deeper than this: it is about vision, about what libraries are, could, and should be. And just as importantly who should run the service. In my opinion, after seven years of mishandling the situation, councils are a fundamental part of the problem. The traditional model of local authorities delivering library services is no longer fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul.

The lack of strategic vision is further exacerbated by the lack of leadership, which in turn is the result of the chaotic nature in which libraries are overseen, funded, and influenced. From the libraries minister, DCMS, DCLG, ACE, Libraries Taskforce, and LGA,  to professional representation by Cilip and the SCL, down to local authorities, and increasingly parish councils, community groups, charities, and mutuals.

Far from the concept of ‘distributed leadership’ once inappropriately advocated by the Arts Council the current framework of oversight and delivery is a prime example of organisational dysfunction. Rather than addressing the structural challenges of the sector the current approach creates a toxic mix in which add-hoc project funding merely places greater pressure on an already creaking network.

The Libraries Taskforce has failed because it has been unable to address two central issues: the provision of on-going revenue funding and the creation of a unified strategic vision that addresses the structural challenges and is not merely a rehash of government policy. No amount of positive spin, blogging, or occasional funding can cover this deficiency.

Nick Poole captured the above difficulties when stating:

“The reason for this is that the Government has more or less direct control over the priorities of lottery and other providers of project funding, but due to the overarching policies of devolution and austerity has elected not to exert control over the ‘core’ funders of libraries and civic museums – the Local Authorities themselves. By withdrawing funds from Local Authorities and leaving them, essentially to their own devices, Government is forcing them into a position whereby core structural issues cannot be addressed and, by association, creating the very real danger of significant inequality between communities in different parts of the four nations of the UK.”

Those of us on the ground see the outcome of these policies everyday; the creation of a two-tier, post code-lottery in local library provision. In turn this leads to greater inequality throughout the country, with the already socially deprived being the most disadvantaged.

Libraries are a national resource and should be treated as such. However, this approach is very much at odds with current political ideology, which does nothing to address genuine sustainability for the future and impedes long-term planning. What we face is a systemic failure of oversight in the sector to create a unified, sustainable model of provision.

As a working librarian I have to accept the current political reality of the fragmentation of services, the downgrading of libraries as a shop front for a mish-mash of council services, and the deprofessionalisation of the sector.

However, I can also hope and aspire towards a better future. For a strategic vision and leadership that leads towards a national approach for library services; that provides genuine oversight, development, and resources to enable libraries to be the best they can be for the benefit not only of local communities but for society as a whole.

This should be the aspiration of the whole library profession while recognising the current political challenges that make this unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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.

 

Challenges and Opportunities

After some initial confusion it was finally announced that Rob Wilson was to be the new Minister for libraries. Given the government’s emphasis on localism it’s not surprising that libraries have been placed as part the civil society agenda. The minister immediately set out his stall by emphasising volunteering, community action, and developing new governance models including mutuals, trusts and co-operatives.

The departure of Ed Vaizey and appointment of Rob Wilson has also led to a delay in the publication of the Libraries Taskforce Ambitions report to allow him time to review the document, visit libraries and talk to colleagues. In all honesty I’m not sure this will make any substantial difference to the outcomes of the report. The direction of travel has always been clear: localism, devolution, community libraries, new governance, commercialisation etc.

So the trajectory will remain the same but what we will see, I suspect, is a more explicit statement on how this will be achieved. Equally, I don’t see Rob Wilson being any more interventionist than his predecessor except perhaps to encourage local authorities to go down the trust route.

Obviously, this will be bitterly disappointing to campaigners fighting to keep libraries as a public service directly accountable to elected members. As it will be for those fighting for a more national approach to libraries that is evident in other parts of the UK.

For the profession there will be both challenges and opportunities and far from the uniform service that has traditionally been offered the new landscape will be a dizzying mosaic of local provision. Over the next few years what I expect to see is a growth of:

  • Hub and spoke model: a central library or small number of libraries providing a core offer, supported by community libraries or alternative provision such as book collections
  • Greater involvement by parish/town council’s in running or funding local libraries
  • Increased commercialisation with more paid for and traded services
  • Relocation, co-location, and core library space given over to other council services or commercial opportunities
  • Reliance on open access technology and volunteers to replace staffed hours and/or extend opening hours

Last but not least a change in how libraries are run. There has been a marked reluctance amongst most authorities to fully embrace the trust route or share services with other councils. Perhaps the new Minister will provide the impetus for this to become the norm, not the exception. None of the above is new and exists in various forms to a lesser or greater degree across the country already. What will happen is an increase in the pace of change.

For those of us in the profession the challenge will be how to manage and adapt to these changes while still providing a core service that reflects the Libraries and Museums Act, and taking advantage of new opportunities for partnership working and income generation.

For some the whole idea will be anathema. But until there is a change in administration, an ideological move away from austerity, and a commitment to plug the funding gap in council budgets then I genuinely don’t see the landscape changing for a long time to come. For campaigners the next few years will be ones of damage limitation and compromise rather than outright victory.

An unintended effect of such changes will impact on the SCL, which until now has offered a safe space at regional meetings for heads of service to support each other. Whether such trust can be maintained around a table where some heads will be eyeing up their neighbours as potential expansion opportunities remains to be seen?

Personally, I would like to think that as a mainly supportive and friendly profession trust and collaboration will continue despite changes to governance models.

Another impact will be the skills needed by senior librarians and heads of service, with less emphasis on traditional skills, and more on managerial and leadership competencies, plus the ability to build partnerships across a wide variety of public, third sector, and commercial bodies.

Whether or not this brave new world is an opportunity or challenge will depend on your viewpoint and politics. But like it or not, it is the new reality to which those of us in the  profession will have to adapt.

 

 

 

 

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.