A dialogue between library campaigners and Suffolk County Council was opened yesterday. While it did not produce accord, a number of important points emerged.
The original classification of the 44 libraries into 15 county libraries, to be protected and divested as a group, and 29 community libraries, which would close if community groups did not take them over, has been effectively abandoned.
Only Ipswich County Library, Bury St Edmonds and probably Lowestoft remain in a core group to be divested. This appears to mean that Chantry (Ipswich), Gainsborough (Ipswich), Beccles, Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Halesworth, Haverhill, Mildenhall, Newmarket, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Woodbridge, join the other 29 seeking community arrangements.
No libraries will be closed without a further consultation. The process of divesting all libraries is expected to take two or three years.
Those who believe libraries should continue to be run as a Suffolk County Council service should write this when filling in the consultation response form.
While the Suffolk libraries face a 30% cut in funding over three years, the overall reduction in money available to the council — government grant plus council tax — is 19.5%
It is, we heard, a question of priorities, and the council side rejected the suggestion they were “diverting funds” away from libraries.
We were also told the council proposals did not envisage the raising of council tax by parish or town councils to fund community-run libraries. This was said in reply to a question about double taxation.
No one at the meeting suggested that libraries should be run by people other than professional librarians.
It was generally accepted that there were problems with the current consultation, although the word “flawed” was rejected by the council side.
A suggestion that the idea of community libraries should be piloted at one library was generally thought to be good, and the council side said they would consider it.
I hope that is a fair resumé of the main points to come out of the meeting. Anyone who disagrees is welcome use the comments below or the contact page to let me know.
The meeting was arranged after James Hargrave, a Stradbroke library campaigner, used the Freedom of Information Act, to acquire a list of names of the consultation team. He has also blogged on yesterday’s meeting.
Library campaigners from Stradbroke, Bungay, Beccles, Leiston and Debenham (myself) were at the meeting with a strong council team headed by Anna McCreadie, director of adult and community services, and Councillor Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries.
The consultation documentation was strongly criticised. It turned out that this had not been produced by the library service or the controlling adult and community services directorate. It was done by the transformation and performance team, which, so far as I can make out, is driving the New Strategic Direction (becoming an “enabling authority”).
No one from that team was at the meeting, which meant that many questions could not be answered. We hope that answers to specific questions will be forthcoming later.
The consolation is muddled because it seems to be addressing two issues at once — cuts to the library budget and the New Strategic Direction.
The council side accepted that use in consolation documents of only depravation measures within library catchments was unsatisfactory and other things like the elderly frail and transport issues would be considered.
Complaints about the tone and wording of the consultation response form were rejected. Campaigners felt that the introductory question set unfair parameters. It reads
This consultation invites communities and businesses, library users and staff, and district, borough, town and parish councils to:
1. Propose how their local library service could continue with the county council paying at least 30% less, and in many cases, substantially less than 30%
2. Tell us of their interest in providing this service.
This, together with introductory material, seems to preclude an answer to the first question saying that the service should continue to be run as a county-wide council service.
We were assured that it would be valid for people to write in that reply.
The invitation to borough, town and parish councils to make proposals for taking over libraries is deeply puzzling, as we are now told that precept-raising was not envisaged.
All the other sections of the consultation, except for name and contact details, are irrelevant to anyone who wants the library service to continue substantially as it is.
Data given in the consultation documents was challenged. The categorisation of county and community libraries was unsustainable. No public announcement has been of the changed category of 13 libraries has been made. Many people, unaware of this, would see no reason to respond. We were told that local councils had been informed of the changes, though.
A suggestion was made that the consultation was so deeply flawed that it should be withdrawn. That was rejected.
That is a great pity, as the construction of the consultation is so poor that it is very difficult to see how it can be analysed to produce any credible results. There is evidence that some people are so confused that they do not submit responses.
The abandonment of the original group of 15 “county libraries”, which were to be divested as a group, leaves many unanswered questions.
Has the council failed to get any interest from alternative library service providers? We know that University Campus Suffolk rejected the proposition. Others may have done the same.
That would certainly explain the smaller group of Ipswich County Library, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft. Are the council talking to commercial library service companies, and do these include the American company LSSI which has set up a UK base? Probably.
A suggestion was made at the meeting of a joint council/campaigners working group. No campaigners accepted this on the spot, but it is a possibility. We were told that other similar meetings were planned.