Tag Archives: Public services

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.

 

Mythomania

Despite the constant misinformation from the government such as only 110 libraries have closed since 2010 we at least know what to expect from this administration as in practice public services and therefore libraries have never been under greater threat. This is down to ideology and dogma, and the rigid adherence to the economically dubious austerity agenda.

I came across the wonderful term ‘mythomania’ recently. Apparently it refers to the behaviour of habitual or compulsive lying…or in other words, spin! The mythomania developed by the government around libraries is almost admirable in its simplicity and effectiveness. Even the Prime Minister has got in on the act recently by claiming that library closures are due to ‘technological change’, whilst totally ignoring the massive reduction in funding.

If Conservatives hold a totally skewed view of libraries you would reasonably expect Labour to have an opposing narrative. Unfortunately not! The Labour view of libraries is rather conspicuous by its absence. This is compounded by major figures such as the new London Mayor. During the mayoral election race, the now successful Sadiq Khan, failed to respond in any meaningful way to campaigners request for support, no doubt cautious over criticising Labour controlled Lambeth.

The equally silent Maria Eagle, Shadow Minister for Culture, Media & Sport seems to have no apparent opinion – or should that be knowledge – of the library crisis, certainly if her Twitter feed is anything to go by. I’ve tried to contact Miss Eagle a number of times by email and Twitter but have, as yet, received no reply.

The last time a shadow minister tried to formulate an opinion around libraries was early 2014 under Helen Goodman. Unfortunately, she was a blink-and-miss-them appointment. Followed by the equally  ‘I don’t really want this role’, Chris Bryant, whose approach to libraries was so akin to Ed Vaizey’s that you couldn’t wedge a piece of paper between them. When challenged Chris’ mantra was ‘silence is golden’, refusing to engage with campaigners or support a fight against closures in his own constituency. Again by a Labour controlled authority.

Labour’s last attempt at writing a policy resulted in the risible Libraries: Innovation, Co-location and Partnership, which again was so similar to the Tories you could be forgiven for thinking they had been written by the same team. And herein lies the problem: the current government has no difficulty with libraries being cut, closed, hollowed-out, or out-sourced. We can disagree with and oppose this approach all we want but at least it’s a clear stance.

Labour on the other hand lack any sort of vision, policy or inclination around libraries and seem supremely unwilling to engage with campaigners to develop one. Unfortunately, for a party committed to public services under Corbynism this presents a conundrum as Labour controlled councils – stand up Sheffield – are just as likely to close and cut local libraries as Tory authorities.

Where there should be a stronger commitment to public services, we get the right of the Labour Party espousing the same free market terminology and localism mantra as the current government. On the other hand the left of the party seem willing to sacrifice valuable local services in order to indulge in petty point scoring against Tory austerity. Added to this mix are senior leaders who refuse to be drawn on the whole issue of the library crisis.

Many have an high expectation of Labour rolling back the devastating damages done to public services and libraries. Given the sheer lack of interest by previous and current shadow minister in the issue, campaigners are unlikely to see a viable alternative to Tory policy developed anytime soon. In fact given how quickly culture shadow ministers come and go it’s unlikely any will have time to develop a proper response.

But then again perhaps the perception that Labour will restore public services to previous levels is in itself a form of unintentional mythomania!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Support Libraries, support public services

Libraries are a public service and as such are very much part of the political arena. Politicians have found to their chagrin that members of the public are proactive in defending libraries and campaigning to prevent closures. From Moray in Scotland, Devon in South West England, and Rhydyfelin in Wales, the message is the same, ‘hands off our libraries’. In both rural and urban areas people fight passionately to save a service they value even when local councilors and national politicians don’t. Sometimes the campaigns are able to influence the outcome initially or, as in Lincolnshire and Sheffield, sometimes not. However, the fight goes on.

But the damage being done to libraries is only part of the undermining of the whole public sector by mainstream parties yoked to an ideology of unrestricted markets and neoliberal values. As such, the fight for libraries should be seen as part of a wider struggle to protect public services. As the We Own it site states ‘public services for people not profit’.

As mainstream politics fracture under the weight of public disillusionment many have turned away from the hegemony of extreme centre politics to smaller parties such as the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Equally new pressure groups articulate a different vision of political engagement and offer a campaigning voice on behalf of a public distrustful of the link between politicians and big business.

Individuals concerned with upholding the public service ethos and preventing the commercialisation of valuable public services such as the NHS are finding different ways, mostly through social media and the internet, to debate, challenge, and engage. Sometimes they take more direct action such as the Occupy movement. The one thing they all have in common is seeking a fairer, more equitable, society than the one we have now. This is the new politics of the 21st Century. Whether it will have lasting impact remains to be seen.

Public services are under attack as never before and it’s up to us as users and public sector workers to defend them. So support libraries, support public services, support the common good.