Monday, December 13, 2010

West Barnes library update

My e-mail inbox has been full of representations over the past few weeks from residents in West Barnes that I am about to close their library. This followed a Lib Dem focus leaflet that I was to announce its imminent closure from next April, this of course led to a deluge of e-mails from local residents. This has now been followed up, belatedly, by a Tory leaflet. Of course my e-mail address has been on the leaflets and residents have understandably sent e-mails to me supporting the library. The running total is over 40 to date with no doubt many more to come.

Firstly, no decision has been made to close West Barnes library. As a council we only received our grant settlement today - and as expected it's not good news. Like many other councils faced with a similar position we are still analysing the full extent of the cuts we need to make, no area of council expenditure can be off limits for possible cuts.

From a child growing up with a wonderful library in Sutton, I know how pivotal they've been to my learning experience and I know how valued they're in the local community. However, with the level of savings that we need to make, we are having to make some very difficult choices at present. Merton as a council has already identified over £11m of savings so far and will still need to make further savings in the budget process beyond those already proposed.

In terms of the library itself, I don't want to be in a position to make a decision I don't really want to make. However, Tory minister Eric Pickles cuts are forcing us to do things that I never envisaged I would have to do in politics. Maybe both Conservative and Liberal councillors can join me in lobbying Eric Pickles for more money - with local MP, Stephen Hammond being his Parliamentary Private Secretary he may have some sway, though I am sure the queue is very long.

I also know the valuable role libraries play in the local community, especially in my own community of Pollards Hill, but also in other communities within Merton including Motspur Park and West Barnes.

In terms of libraries, I am already having to make savings. West Barnes library is proposed to close for another day each week, though it will now be opened at lunch hours which will only result in a small reduction each week in opening hours. Although hours will be reduced, in other libraries across the borough apart from Colliers Wood we'll be increasing opening hours. A further consultation will be carried out with users in the New Year but this is positive news in troubled times, and we'll be able to run the service at a low cost than at present with longer opening hours as well. Sadly Conservative councillors on Merton including their culture spokesperson, Cllr Samantha George seem to be opposed to these changes. They are being made in response to the many requests we've had from residents to open the main libraries of Wimbledon, Mitcham and Morden on Wednesday afternoon and to abolish lunchtime closures. So it's not all doom and gloom.

Across London, libraries are being proposed for closure by councils. In Conservative controlled Wandsworth they want to reduce their libraries from 11 to 5, a figure lower than in Merton which is a significantly smaller borough. We are not yet in that position in Merton and I hope it will remain that way, but thanks to Government cuts we have many challenges ahead in protecting our library service.

As a community we do need to look to the future in terms of libraries and I would welcome ideas, suggestions. I believe libraries do have a future, but their role has changed in recent years, and will no doubt change further in the years to come.

Local Government settlement

At last, the local government settlement has been made, and true to form Eric Pickles has certainly taken care of his mates in the Tory shires. whilst shafting the urban areas which are predominately Labour authorities. In London, the bias is also endemic where surprise, surprise the Tory boroughs have done much better than the Labour Boroughs, just like what happened under Maggie. Fair it isn't, but then again then they've never been known for that trait and they are still the same old Tories despite all the coalition gloss.

In Merton we will be required to make even larger savings than those envisaged previously. It is tough times, and it will mean taking some very difficult decisions in the next few weeks. One thing is sure, as a Labour Council protecting the vulnerable and those in need will remain paramount to our decision making and principles.