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Suffolk: And now there are eight little libraries…

The collapse of the Ipswich libraries co-operative (previous post) is a huge blow to Suffolk County Council’s plan for community governance, almost halving the number of libraries in pilot schemes.

When the pilots were announced there were 14 libraries and now just eight remain to test something which has not been tried anywhere else.

None of the large libraries are among the eight remaining: Aldeburgh, Bungay, Sudbury, Thurston, Wicham Market and Eye, Debenham and Stradbroke (as a cluster of three).

Pilot libraries with local management organisations are intended to be the first to sign agreements with the Industrial and Provident Society. This would make them members of the IPS and entitled to vote for its directors. The first elections must be held within the next 18 months.

Under the heading, Enhancing governance… vision: stronger community governance, a report to the council last year said:

This model has local governance at its heart, and provides an additional incentive for local organisations to take on library services. The IPS itself, providing central services and coordination, is governed by the organisations running local library services. The Company Board is elected by these local organisations with democratic “one member one vote” principles, and all Board members have to be part of an organisation running local library services and using the central enabling services of the IPS.

There is a risk around governance if many communities do not take on local library governance. The IPS would then have limited number of members and uneven representation of libraries.

And since then the council has changed the rules setting the hurdle, for community library organisations to become members of the IPS, higher.

James Hargrave has an excellent blog post on this today. In short, the rules have been changed so that instead of setting up a simple association, communities would need to register limited companies, probably with charitable status. This would mean all the overheads of two annual reports, audited accounts and require about 270 people to become directors, if all libraries are to be represented.

As we know know the six libraries in Ipswich will be run directly by the IPS , for the time being at least, the threat of “uneven representation” is looking very real.

Whether all the remaining pilots will consider it worth going through the administrative hoops is unclear.

The analysis looked at what would happen if the IPS failed after the service had been transferred to it. This is what it says:

The reputational damage to the County Council may not be too significant, as the County Council would have genuinely tried to do something different with the library service empowering communities to run the service.

The change in the IPS membership rules is something of a mystery. We know that the county council has been advised by The Guild, a business support consultancy, in Norwich. The advice changed at some point.

But the biggest problem remains that the IPS was set up for political reasons against the overwhelming response to the consultation calling on the council to continue running libraries.

The expressions of interest were largely made by communities believing that if they did nothing their local libraries would be closed.

The council cabinet seems to have buried its collective head in the sand and believed that there was enthusiasm to set up local bodies to running libraries. There was not, an is not.

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