There is a petition calling on the government to ringfence funding for libraries by Frances Belbin. The text reads:
“Libraries across the country are being closed, cut back and/or outsourced to volunteers as a result of government cuts to local authority budgets. Councils are unable to keep staffed library services open when faced with the competing demands of social care, child protection etc.
Local libraries are a vital resource for the promotion of reading, literature and culture. They are a necessity for the digitally excluded who need to go online to access benefits, health, education and employment resources.
While the commitment of volunteers is welcomed, volunteer-run library services are unsustainable long-term.
The government must ringfence funding to ensure councils can fulfil their statutory duty to keep libraries services available to the general public.”
As of today (Sunday, 21st October 2018) the petition had attracted 7,035 signatures. At 10,000 signatures the Government will provide a response. Whether that response will be substantially different to those replies received by various MPs and Peers in the Houses of Commons and Lords remains to be seen. At 100,000 signatures the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.
Given the continuing popularity of libraries and coming off the back of the Summer Reading Challenge and Libraries Week I’m hoping that the 10,000 barrier can be reached relatively easily . So if you haven’t already done so please sign and encourage friends and family to do so.
The tone of the petition is in keeping with a recent article in the New Statesman; The deepest cuts: austerity measured, outlining the real-terms funding cuts to local authorities including a section on public libraries. Despite the Prime Ministerial claim that ‘austerity is over’ the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that “without substantial tax rises or much better growth prospects there is no way for the chancellor both to end austerity for public services and to eliminate the budget deficit.”
The spending cuts within local authorities are set to continue until at least 2020 leading the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association (LGA) to warn that “…after eight years of austerity during which £16bn has been stripped from municipal budgets in England, councils risked being “damaged beyond recognition” and communities depleted of vital services.”
Whether the spending review set for 2019 will ease some of this burden is not yet clear but with a 49% reduction in finances since 2010 it will be a long time before authorities bounce back and are unlikely to ever fully recover to pre-austerity levels.
National funding for libraries in this context will remain a difficult challenge and calling for a national approach runs contrary to the recently released Civil Society Strategy in which:
“People are empowered to take responsibility for their neighbourhoods. Power is decentralised so that local officials and professionals are properly accountable to local people, and trusted to do their job without bureaucratic interference. The provision of services is seen as the business of the community, not solely the responsibility of government, and providers are drawn from a broad range of suppliers from the public sector and beyond.”
The reports highlights the positives of communities taking on responsibility for services previously provided by local authorities, encourages closer working with Town and Parish Councils, voluntary organisations, social enterprise organisations, and actively encourages the adoption of public service mutuals.
Libraries get several mentions, including a case study of Suffolk Libraries, and the statement that:
“Many public libraries have an established track record in providing opportunities to facilitate this. Many are actively developing their role as community hubs bringing together local people, services, and organisations under one roof. There is a growing number of public libraries which are directly run or managed by the communities themselves or as mutuals by the people who work in them (or as a combination of the two), with varying levels of support from local councils at all levels.”
This is further supported by the promotion of the Mutuals Support Programme 2 and the mutuals masterclasses commissioned by DCMS and run via the Libraries Taskforce and strategic partners.
Whether the rosy ideal of the Civil Society Strategy matches the actual reality on the ground remains open to vigorous debate. It certainly seems mismatched with the warnings coming from the LGA and the many instances of hollowing-out taking place in library services.
A recent analysis by CIPFA reported in Public Finance outlines how the ‘Government is increasingly shifting the costs of public services on to citizens as the effects of austerity continue.’ The article states that “One way the government has tried to save money and avoid the need for tax increases is by asking members of the public to contribute more in other ways – from volunteers running libraries to people paying a greater share of the cost of defending themselves in court.”
The report states that many neighbourhood services – such as waste collection, food safety, road maintenance and libraries – have sustained the deepest spending cuts of all the services looked at.
The fact that libraries, like many public services, need additional funding for revenue and infrastructure rather than just project funding, should be uncontestable. How and by whom that funding is provided is very much an ongoing conversation.
The direction of travel advocated by the present government would seem to indicate a delivery matrix of a smaller core statutory service with a mixture of in-house and commissioned models, underpinned by a second tier service (mostly non-statutory) run by community groups, volunteers, and parish/town councils.
Whether this satisfies the definition of a comprehensive and efficient library service seems a moot point when Councils are faced with very real budget reductions and in some instances the issuing of 114 notices.
But to a certain extent to only concentrate on the issue of funding is miss the point as to why libraries need protecting in the first place. And it has never been because of any failure in relevance or adaptation on the part of libraries.
Finance is only one part of the equation. The main issue is ideology and for the past eight years the government has been wedded to austerity, privatisation, and the ‘small state’ doctrine. And it is this dogma, coupled with fiscal policy, that has resulted in the contraction, commercialisation, and outsourcing of public services such as libraries.