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.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Aaron said...

Martin,

I am dismayed at your decision, and at the timing. Anyone would think you timed it specifically to be at the same time as the grant settlement so as to bury it from public scrutiny.

It dismays me that you have taken the easy option. Just last week Siobhain McDonagh warned that councils will be tempted to take the easy route at the expense of residents, rather than engage in the more complex restructures and sharing arrangements that will really make the difference. How little did she know that so shortly afterwards Merton would be betrayed by you.

I am dismayed that you dress up the decision as NOT closing the library, and yet you decide to substantially reduce the opening hours.

I am dismayed that in the face of a tide of public opinion against the closure you decide to save what is reported to be a very small amount of money, when there are profilgate spending plans on the optional wheelie bins.

I am dismayed that in my area of Colliers Wood only last week the local councillors told us in an open meeting that there were no plans for any library closures and that there was no point in a local petition until those proposals had been announced. Is this incompetance or lies on their part?

Finally, and tellingly, I am dismayed that the staff of the libraries have been gagged from commenting at all, from telling members of the public what was happening or on taking any form of action to try to protect their jobs. This is a very basic human right, squashed with pressure because you are embarassed about your weak and lazy choices.

3:21 pm  
Blogger P Miles said...

I have already suggested you contact Tim Coates for advice.

Seriously.

Here is an endorsement posted on a Local Government blog entitled Efficiency hotseat with Tim Coates
June 4, 2010 — Ingrid Koehler

"Back when I used to work for the Audit Commission – I worked on a study of libraries which we called Building Better Library Services. We got tv and tabloid coverage, as well as some great pieces in the broadsheets, back when they actually were broadsheets. It was probably the hottest thing I’ve ever worked on in terms of press coverage.

You don’t expect to be liked when you work for the Audit Commission, but it was probably also the hottest thing I’ve ever worked on in terms of drawing the wrath of public servants. I dared not darken the doorway of my local library for a while after that one. We drew some pretty harsh conclusions for library services in England and Wales. But it was out of love. Honestly. Tough love maybe, but definitely love for reading and books and libraries as shared public spaces that support learning and literacy.

During the report we worked with a fellow called Tim Coates, which was an absolutely fantastic experience. Tim used to be the MD of Waterstones and he loves libraries, too. I haven’t done anything with library services since then, but Tim has continued to work and campaign in this field.

His public library work was extensively quoted in the Kaufman Select Committee Report of 2005 and by the Audit Commission. He has worked in Westminster, Oxfordshire, Tower Hamlets, Hampshire, and several other councils. He was a consultant on the library project in the London Borough of Hillingdon which has been widely acclaimed for having produced substantial increase in local use with reduced budgets. He is now the Chair of LLL, the umbrella group for library users in London.

While Tim’s work is largely around library services, his views impact on the whole area of of community engagement in efficiency and Executive and Scrutiny, middle and senior manager budgetary control and scrutiny."

The key sentence for me is "He was a consultant on the library project in the London Borough of Hillingdon which has been widely acclaimed for having produced substantial increase in local use with reduced budgets." We need fresh thinking in Merton - why not?

11:38 pm  
Blogger P Miles said...

With the Head of Library Services leaving at the end of March, now is an opportunity to get fresh ideas from outside. I have suggested approaching Tim Coates before. Here is what The Independent has to say today:
"One figure has flourished as the modernising four-star general in this fight. Tim Coates, former Waterstone's chief and now consultant on public-library policy, remains the key strategist to watch. Today, in the wake of local unrest, he will address Somerset county councillors. His advice on how libraries can do more, do it better, and still save money deserves keen scrutiny. For it seems to work.
Hillingdon – his best-known success story since its renovation programme began in 2007 – has no plans to close branches. Visitor numbers have grown. For all the eye-catching innovations on the west London borough's 17 sites (Starbucks and Macs), the council insists that "Our libraries look like libraries, not activity centres or hubs". Books still matter. And the Coates formula – smart stock control, lower backroom costs, staff initiative and welcoming design – makes strong sense. He reckons that London libraries alone could save £50 million and still thrive."

1:13 pm  

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