Inside Croydon‘s GENE BRODIE discovers that in the midst of an “official consultation”, councillors and a local residents’ association chairman appear to have carved up the future of one branch library between them
Croydon Council’s libraries consultation – proposing the closure of six of the borough’s branch libraries – has been criticised widely, for poor publicity, the bias of the questionnaire, and the way it has set residents in different neighbourhoods in opposition to each other.
Yet while MPs Gavin Barwell and Malcolm Wicks and councillors in five of the areas affected by the proposed closures have listened to and advocated for the communities that they represent, the situation in Sanderstead is in marked contrast.
Dennis Eldridge, the long-standing chairman of Sanderstead Residents’ Association (SRA), held a secret meeting of his committee on January 10, which was attended by the local ward councillors but excluded local residents, including members of SRA.
Following the meeting, Eldridge wrote to Croydon Council’s chief executive, Jon Rouse. Inside Croydon has obtained a copy of the letter, in which Eldridge claims, “It is felt that the best way forward would be to operate a shared service with Selsdon with the help of volunteers. Local schools and literary groups have said that they would be willing to help.”
In his letter, Eldridge claimed, “I speak on behalf of the residents of Sanderstead”, although residents had been in touch with Eldridge only hours before the meeting to be told that he had only been contacted by three people.
Ahead of his meeting, in conversation with concerned residents, Eldridge shared his own plan to push for Sanderstead to be run by volunteers, and he spoke of his contact with Chalfont St Giles Community Library to gather information.
After the SRA meeting, from which they had been excluded, residents who asked for minutes were denied them, Eldridge saying “the committee just don’t want you to have them”.
But one resident obtained a copy of Eldridge’s letter to Rouse, prompting the SRA chairman to receive a number of questions for Sanderstead residents.
- Could he detail the literary groups he had cited as being in favour of his plan? “I don’t remember,” Eldridge said.
- Who had volunteered for his scheme? “To date no real people are standing up” to volunteer, Eldridge was forced to admit.
- Local residents did some research of their own, but despite canvassing local schools and voluntary groups, none could be found in favour of a scheme to run their local library, as Eldridge had claimed in his letter.
Eldridge did, at least, outline some of the impact that closing the library would have on Sanderstead residents, the elderly among them who would find journeys to Selsdon or central Croydon too far, while, as a listed building, the council would still need to pay for its maintenance.
The flaw in Eldridge’s “cunning plan” is the absence of any volunteers. Despite this, the ward’s councillors seem intent on pushing this model through, perhaps to help them provide an example of the “Big Society” in action.
To achieve their end, the councillors have resorted to what some Sanderstead residents regard as scaremongering. One councillor told enquirers that, “Three libraries in the consultation are looking at going, Sanderstead being one of them.” Or maybe they already knew that the consultation was a sham, and decisions had already been made.
The councillors have been backed by Eldridge, who maintains that Sanderstead Library has no future unless there is a contigency plan in place.
The ward councillors – Tim Pollard, the deputy leader of the council’s ruling Conservative group, Lynne Hale and Yvette Hopley – started circulating a “Libraries Special” newsletter on Jan 27, after an outcry from Sanderstead residents when one of their InTouch leaflets dropped on to residents’ doormats just a few days before with no mention of the potential closure of Sanderstead Library, the consultation or the planned public meeting. Local residents had quickly dubbed the freesheet OutofTouch.
Hale, Hopley and Pollard now stated that they are “very keen to develop a community-led alternative to closure”. What residents could not understand is that, at the time of publication, the council’s consultation was still on-going, and no decision on the closure of Sanderstead Library had yet been reached. Not openly, at least.
“As a ward team we are committed to creating a sustainable future for our Library and believe that becoming a Community Library is the best way forward. Can you help?” they wrote.
The approach is mirrored in correspondence received by residents from Sanderstead councillors and their absentee MP, “Tricky Dicky” Ottaway.
In one email, Hopley writes, “A number of residents have put forward to me the idea of a shared service being operated with Selsdon with assistance from volunteers. They state that whilst not ideal it would certainly be preferable to closure.”
Following a public meeting, Hopley told another resident that due to the affluent population of Sanderstead, with most residents having cars, it was likely that Sanderstead was in line for closure. She said only 20 volunteers would be required to run the library and councillors were promoting the volunteer model because it was suggested by SRA.
Similarly, Pollard has written in response to residents’ concerns, rolling out identical responses. “The local councillors in Sanderstead and Croham wards are working with the residents’ associations to put together a ‘Friends of Sanderstead Library’ group which we hope can both muster voluntary support and perhaps fund-raise to supplement a reduced level of council funding.”
“In the case of Sanderstead the local councillors believe there is a case for making the Sanderstead Library a sub-branch of Selsdon Library, and having a professional librarian part time (or full time if we believe that’s affordable), supported by some volunteers… Sanderstead councillors have already indicated their willingness to form part of that voluntary support group.”
So many leading statements must have a real impact on the case for Sanderstead residents during a consultation process. There are genuine fears among residents who want the library kept open and professionally staffed that this cloud of misinformation created by their councillors’ campaign must affect the consultation results by portraying Sanderstead as accepting the volunteer model, while deterring those with other ideas from coming forward.
At the public meeting, Sara “Book Token” Bashford, who is in charge of the consultation, clearly disregarded some of the alternative ideas offered up by those attending.
It can only be assumed, in the absence of any “real” Sanderstead people coming forward to volunteer, Eldridge and his new chums at Croydon Council will enlist the help of pixies, elves and the occasional mythical beast, found from within the woods of leafy Sanderstead, which is bound to be a draw card for even the most reluctant young reader.
This, coupled with the Sanderstead ward councillors’ own commitment to volunteer, will make for great public interest. As one resident told Inside Croydon, “There’s huge potential for fund-raising attached to this. People will be willing to pay for front row seats for Councillor Pollard’s first ‘Wriggle and Giggle’ session at Sanderstead.”
There is a demonstration against library closures planned at Croydon Town Hall tonight, from 6pm