Dodgy Dudley?

As a library campaigner and commentator I am particularly interested when libraries spin out of local authority control. It’s an issue I have written about many times and therefore tend to keep an eye on those proposing such a route.

Dudley is one such service. In October 2015 Public Library News highlighted the aim of Dudley Council to create an employee-led mutual with a planned launch date of April 2016. Given that such decisions require planning well in advance (or at least should do) I have no doubt that library staff, corporate officers, and councillors had been in discussions for a long time.

In the news story a spokesperson for the council made clear that the mutual would be “where council employees set up a new organisation separate to the local authority to continue to deliver public services.” A three-month public consultation was planned and for talks with staff, unions and other stakeholders.

Rachel Harris, the cabinet member responsible for libraries said:

“As a community council we are committed to delivering high quality services to our existing customers and at the same time providing opportunities to widen access to community services. An employee-led mutual creates opportunities to deliver professionally led services supported by the community in a way that local people can be proud of.”

In April 2016 it was announced that the library service would be run as a ‘not-for-profit mutual’. Councillor Harris is quoted as saying that this was a new era for the borough and described it as a ‘absolutely historic occasion for this council’.

It was reported that the new organisation would be run by staff but have community, employee and council involvement at board level.

So far, so good. Despite the cutbacks and financial challenges Dudley Council had made the decision to place the future of the library service firmly in the hands of the people who knew it best, the library staff themselves. This was certainly the position the council promoted to the public during the consultation exercise.

It was also the preferred option of the Council as the Cabinet Report made abundantly clear:

  • “Consultation with user groups about the Mutual model has been done by local staff in each setting.” (point4)
  • “There has been a specific comment about the mutual model from one of the Friends of Libraries groups who wanted to know more about the business case and how the Friends would work with the library if it was run from within a staff led mutual.” (point 5)
  • “There have been helpful and encouraging comments from one partner organisation where the library is co-located in their building about the Mutual model and how this could improve further joint working.” (point 6)
  • “Frequently Asked Questions continue to be compiled and a regular staff mutual newsletter began in January.  Staff are taking part in workstreams, including a workshop on branding for the Mutual.” (point 8)
  • ” A Mutual is an umbrella term for an organisation run for the benefit of its members, who have active and direct involvement whether as employees, suppliers or the community.  Meta-Value recommends an Employee-led Mutual with charitable status as the model for LAAL, which would enable greater income growth.  Membership would be open to employees and members of the community with a Board which includes a nominated Council representative.  York Explore has spun-out using this model.” (point 14)
  • “On 28th October 2015, Cabinet approved the following:  in principle, the setting up an employee-led Mutual for   LAAL, with a 5 year Business Plan, subject to consultation with staff and the public and the decision of full Council in February” (point 15)

In fact the whole report is in favour of the proposal to set-up a ‘staff led mutual’, so you would be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what would happen. Certainly both the public and staff were led to believe this. So positive was the proposal to establish a staff led mutual that Dudley Council even prepared a candidate’s pack for a Treasurer of the newly created model.

Dudley was also awarded £42,000 as part of the Mutuals Support Programme for support around ‘legal governance, business planning and financial modelling, stakeholder engagement support and transition.’

Therefore, it came as a great shock when it was announced that GLL was instead to step in and take on the running of Dudley’s Libraries.

Now there several puzzling areas here:

  • How can GLL take on the running of Dudley libraries, including TUPEing staff over, and yet the Council still claim that a staff-led working arrangement has been created? A ‘staff-led’ mutual is precisely that: a service owned and run by the staff, for the benefit of the community in which each member of staff has a vote to elect trustees and local residents are able to become members. This is a long way from how GLL operates.
  • Where, when, how and whom made the decision to appoint GLL? Like many Councils decision-making takes place in a labyrinth of different committees. However, such decisions should be clear via Cabinet or Scrutiny minutes etc. I’ve made a request to DMBC for details but have not yet received an answer.
  • Did the funding given to Dudley via the Mutuals Support Programme allow for the awarding of the contract to a different provider?

I am actively following through on these questions and will publish a further post when (if!) I get answers.

One thing that is clear though is that both staff and the public have been misled and misinformed over the proposals. Neither group have been consulted or engaged with over the process and the decision to award the contract appears shrouded in council bureaucratic fog.

I hope that residents and campaigners challenge this bit of rather dodgy decision making. That Dudley Council quickly comes to its sense and reverses the agreement with GLL and awards it to where it properly belongs; to the staff and residents of Dudley.

 

 

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.