It was hard to hear much of Suffolk County Council cabinet meeting yesterday because the sound equipment was badly adjusted. Twice a technician had to be called from some distant part of Endeavour House. And the battery in the roving mic used for questions from the public and backbenchers went flat: someone had to go in search of a new battery.
I could not help wondering why, if the council could not organise such things better, we should trust them with the decisions they were to make. Having a technician on hand at the start of a meeting and a spare battery in a pocket is so standard it should not need a formal risk assessment.
Yet it hardly mattered as the sound of rubber stamps being inked was clear as they started talking about the future of libraries.
Some things would have been better left unheard. Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries, told us that 5% of £6m was £100,000. Pity they were not talking about the standards of maths in the community.
I thought I must have misheard her, but afterwards others confirmed they had heard the same. And the East Anglian Daily Times this morning reports (this paragraph is not in the online story) the county council will “finance 95 per cent of the cost of running local libraries, but the final 5% should be raised locally”.
Reading the papers (162 pages of them about libraries) it is clear that individual libraries will be required to raise 5% of what is called “direct costs”. That does give us the £100,000 figure. The total budget for the slimmed down library service is a bit over £6.5 million.
The rubber stamp was applied to the creation of a co-operative to run libraries, rather than a slimmed down in-house service or a company wholly owned by the council on the grounds that it would save most money and would best meet the localism policy.
It hardly mattered that no mention was made of a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis which identified a weakness of community governance as: “Lack of direct democratic mandate for local library organisations (unless part of parish/town councils).”
Democracy in action did not seem very attractive in the Elizabeth Room of Endeavour House yesterday morning.
The scrutiny committee had looked at some of the issues before the meeting and came up with ten recommendations. The report to the cabinet said the majority of the scrutiny committee recommendations had been acted upon. Unfortunately it not say which had been ignored.
The only time the meeting (it would be misrepresentation to call it a debate) showed a spark of life was when Sandy Martin, the Labour leader asked a question of the cabinet. He wanted to know what they were doing about the scrutiny recommendation that,”any claims on secondary taxation from Parish, Town, District or Borough Councils be carried out on an equitable basis across Suffolk”.
The reaction to this in the cabinet papers is: “The reference module, and the financial modelling in the Evaluation do not presuppose secondary taxation.”
Ms Terry elaborated saying that any secondary taxation would be voluntary. I don’t think she was suggesting that council tax payers could withhold a part of their payments if their local council decided to support their library.
The most amazing thing was that no mention was made of the overall recommendations of the the 121 page Best Value Evaluation Report. These were:
- Options 1 and 3 [slimmed down in-house service and a cooperative] are both considered as serious contenders for the future delivery of library services with the deciding factors being the risk appetite of the County Council and the level of commitment to community governance.
- The next phase of the work should include an in-depth review of the risks identified in both the community governance model and the selected structural delivery model in order to ensure that mitigation can be put in place to minimise the impact of risks identified in the adopted approach.
The decision was simply to adopt the co-operative model (an Industrial and Provident Society), without the recommended in-depth review of both approaches. It is subject to endorsement by the full council in December.
Members of the business development team who have clearly worked very hard on the the best value report must be wondering why they are employed by the council.
It is a relief that there is no threat to closure of any of the county’s 44 libraries but confidence in the plans needs the full examination of the risks identified by the business development team.