Not for the first time, developments over the privatisation of Croydon’s public library service have been reported from Wandsworth Town Hall long before our public servants in Taberner House have got around to imparting any news to the council tax-payers who fund their wages.
Wandsworth Council is spinning off its library services department that runs the libraries in its borough, into a private company to run the libraries in its borough (you know it makes sense), and also to take on the management of Croydon’s libraries.
Croydon embarked on the joint tendering process earlier this year, based on the false premise that the public wanted its library service privatised.
Even before the process was announced, it all smacked of a stitch-up, with Croydon’s bungling Sara Bashford attending secret meetings in Wandsworth with officials from that council and from LSSI, the American asset-strippers who seemed to be given preferential treatment in the bidding to run the libraries of the two south London boroughs.
Initially, internal bids from Croydon and Wandsworth’s library departments were refused entry to this closed-shop race. But when LSSI and another of the big, commercial concerns pulled out of the bidding because there was not enough juicy profit in the deal for them, a Wandsworth council bid was allowed in through the backdoor, ostensibly to make up the numbers.
Wandsworth has now detailed how it is spinning off its libraries department into a separate company, and all with charitable status.
Charitable status ought not be confused with charitable activity: charitable status is so much more palatable at the ballot box, and think of the tax advantages, too, especially when Wandsworth’s spun-off library company eventually could be in charge of vast amounts of property, much of it originally gifted to the public by historic benefactors.
Details of this development were reported yesterday, as Wandsworth’s South London Library and Cultural Services (SLLCS) was named (don’t councils just love their anonymising acronyms?).
Wandsworth council papers which were published last month provide far greater detail about the process than has ever been put into the public domain by Croydon Council. Click here to read the document provided to the Wandsworth Council scrutiny committee.
One phrase in the document stands out: “The current budget for the library service is in excess of £5 million but the affordability figure for the Wandsworth contract is £4.9 million so it is anticipated that the tender process will result in a reduction in costs to the council.”
Croydon’s library budget is £7.5 million, with a goal of £2.5 million in “cost savings” post-privatisation.
There are many, such as Croydon Labour’s libraries spokesman, Timothy Godfrey, who believe that the borough’s library services have been crippled by a massive burden of back-office and IT costs. This part of its budget provides very little benefit to the service, but helps to subsidise otherwise badly negotiated and costly deals within the council.
A merger of back-office services between the two boroughs’ library services would undoubtedly offer some economies of scale and savings, though it is telling that neither commercial bidders LSSI nor Civica thought those savings to be significant enough for them to profit.
It is also worth considering that, under Bashford’s “reign of terror” over anything cultural in Croydon, the public libraries have been run down, with wide-ranging staff redundancies, some building repairs left undone or postponed, books sold off, book orders vastly reduced, and digital services in the libraries left to decay. Wandsworth’s new libraries company, or whoever is handed the deal after bids close at noon on September 21, look to be faced with making cost savings on a service which, in Croydon at least, has already been run into the ground.
Could there possibly be another agenda at work here? Given that one of the remaining two bidders is a subsidiary of developer John Laing, Croydon’s multi-million-pound “partner” in the £450million urban regeneration vehicle – or “civic property speculation” as we prefer to call it – it presents a real possibility that some of the libraries will be greedily looked upon a valuable land bank for whoever is ultimately chosen as the library “operator”.
The Wandsworth Guardian website yesterday quoted a Wandsworth councillor, Jonathan Cook, as saying, “Five years ago our options were limited but now there is a developing and competitive marketplace out there with a lot to offer. If an outsider can do a better job at a lower cost then we won’t be afraid to take the first step.
“We’ve been through this process in other areas like leisure centres, refuse collection and meals on wheels. The results have been improved services, new ideas and better value for money.”
Really? Improved services? Better value for money?
And just what are those “new ideas”?
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