Confirmation that Suffolk Libraries will transfer to the Industrial and Provident Society on August 1 comes in a press release from the County Council today (July 20).
I have mixed feelings. I still believe that the council and its democratically elected councillors should have continued to provide libraries directly, rather than fund someone else to do its job at a lower price than it would manage itself.
But I also feel optimistic that libraries will be better able to meet their social objectives with the dead hand of bureaucracy and vision-free councillors removed.
Early last year we were faced with what seemed very much like an ultimatum for community groups to support half the county’s libraries or loose them. Huge opposition resulted in a promise that all libraries would remain open and the setting up of “Suffolk’s Libraries” IPS to run them in conjunction community groups.
The community groups will from next year form the membership of the IPS, appointing the directors. Negotiations over funding are bound to be robust.
The present IPS board members are appointed but all those nominated by community groups were agreed by the former chairman and the council.
The board got off to a difficult start with the chairman chosen by the county council deciding to resign from the role. Then the board announced that it was gong to trade as “Suffolk Libraries” dripping the ridiculous apostrophe they had been given.
Negotiations over the contract have clearly been tough. Under the optimistic illustrative timetable presented to the county council last October, the transfer should have taken place on April 7.
Now it is going to happen nearly four months later than planned. Unfortunately, this has extended the period of uncertainty for staff.
One of the urgent tasks for the IPS will be to restore staff morale. They will have to consult over a new staff structure. I believe they will not be following the county council’s idea that new staff should be employed on lower pay rates than existing staff: that is a good starting point.
They will I think communicate well. Certainly they have been talking and listening to the pilot library community groups who were chosen to pioneer new ways of working and local governance.
The number of pilot libraries has reduced to eight following the collapse of the cluster of six Ipswich libraries. (Declaration: I am chairman of the Debenham pilot library working group.)
Among the changes the IPS has made was to recognise that the rules for local library groups which enter into an agreement it was discouraging some community groups. The simpler rules will apply until the first elected board of the IPS is chosen next year.
Everything I have seen demonstrates that the IPS has dedicated and very hardworking people. Now I am waiting to see details of the contract.
In the end I believe that Suffolk can come out of this with a better library service, closely tuned to the needs of communities. It is a vision which is not only about lending books but providing inclusive community hubs.
In Debenham we are planning to move the library to larger premises, increase support for school pupils, develop services for the elderly and disabled, have a larger book stock and much more.
We will undoubtedly need more volunteers and fund-raising to achieve out objectives. But most important is that in Suffolk, unlike many parts of the country, we are not losing any libraries.
Shona Bendix, chair of the IPS, says, in the press release:
Suffolk’s Libraries IPS has a very strong and very clear aim – to do what’s best for the future of the service…
[This transfer] has been a long time coming but I firmly believe that the IPS has found a way to take Suffolk’s library service forward to bigger and better things.