The announcement that Suffolk libraries have been “saved”, rushed out over a bank holiday weekend, stinks of political expediency.
It comes just four days before the borough and and district elections which are widely expected to see Labour win control of Ipswich as Conservatives suffer there and in the districts.
While the abandonment of the plan by Conservative dominated Suffolk County Council to divest all libraries is welcome, it is far from clear how libraries would operate under the newly proposed community interest company.
It was a political announcement apparently agreed by some sort of sofa cabinet consisting Mark Bee, the leader elect, Jane Storey, the interim leader and Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries.
It comes before they have even had time to read all the submissions to the ill-fated libraries consultation which only ended on Saturday.
On BBC Radio Suffolk this morning Cllr Terry said they hoped to save all the libraries and denied that the announcement was a political stunt.
Just five days ago, on Wednesday, April 27, there was no hint of this change of heart. Cllr Terry told people handing in save our libraries petitions: “We are looking at all options ay the moment…. The consultation does ot end until the end of the month and then we have to analyse all the results.”
So what happened in the following three days? We simply don’t know, but rumours started to circulate on social media yesterday and during the afternoon a story appeared on the website of the Ipswich Evening Star by local government correspondent Paul Geater.
Today Geater has a fuller story in the East Anglain Daily Time (which shares staff with the Evening Star) today which says:
The libraries are set to be run by a community interest company which will be fully owned by the county council – but will include representatives of communities across Suffolk as well as councillors and officials.
Mrs Terry said this would ensure that the county retained responsibility for providing the library service – but it would enable individual communities to decide what was on offer.
She said: “The review of library services has shown how much they are valued by their communities, but it has also shown that different communities want different things from their libraries and this should allow them to develop in different ways.”
She said that involving communities in the running of the libraries would lead to a reduction in the amount of bureaucracy and should help to make savings needed by the county.
On Radio Suffolk she said that the Community Interest Company would make savings of at least 30% but they hoped the savings could be greater. Cllr Terry did say there would be a further consultation before a report to the council’s Cabinet.
A lot of questions remain to be answered. Not least, why was the decision leaked on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend at the start of a week in which local government elections (not including the County Council itself) take place?
There is the question of why a community interest company with “community representatives” on its board will be more democratic than the council running the libraries. How will these representatives by chosen and how will that be more democratic than elected councillors running the service?
How will a community interest company be able to make greater savings than would be possible if the county continued to run libraries directly?
After Cllr Bee was chosen by the Conservative group as leader-elect two weeks ago folwoing the resignation of Jeremy Pembroke, he told the EADT:
If we are going to properly engage with the people of Suffolk we are going to have find out what they want in such a way that there is a meaningful way that these things can be run and not just a theory and a hope that people will take them on.
If the Big Society is about anything it is about working with communities and I want us as a council to actively do that rather than just hope and anticipate that people will take these things on.
One of the principle objections to the just-finished consultation was that it appeared not to have been thought through before being launched on the public with apparently one option for many of the libraries: form a community group to take it over or lose it.
Now another single idea is being presented to the people. And it appears to have been cobbled together in three days.