Secret meetings and council silence on library sell-off

Bookish GENE BRODIE looks at recent developments over Croydon’s library service, and finds that some things said by Mike Fisher and Sara Bashford just don’t stack up

Today is June 26. Croydon Council has yet to announce formally any details behind the decision taken on libraries at the Cabinet meeting on June 13.

Point to make: can a council sell off "public" libraries to a private business?

That’s the same Croydon Council which controls multiple websites, plus random and little-read blogs, Twitter accounts, email lists and even network of 13 libraries, where a humble poster advising of plans could be placed. The epitome of a multi-media offering you’d think. No excuse for not sharing information, certainly.

Indeed, even in these hard times, Croydon Council has taken to spending considerable sums of money on four-page wraparound ads with the Croydon Guardian.

But in all that, not a single word on libraries. There was not even the briefest of mention at the first Croydon Question Time (slogan: “We’re listening”), held the evening following the decision, where both the leader of the council’s ruling Conservative group, Mike Fisher, and Sara Bashford, the Tory group’s cabinet member for customer services, culture and sport, spoke. Of libraries, they said nothing. No a word.

How curious.

Now this may be because, according to Fisher, he knew nothing about a meeting held between the American carpet-baggers, Library System Services Inc (LSSI), and the council’s chief executive, Jon Rouse. Which does rather raise the question: who is setting policy in our borough, our elected representatives, or our £200,000 per year all-powerful and apparently unaccountable CEO?

The Sunday Express reported on the LSSI links last week. Meanwhile, officially, Croydon Council says nothing about what Bashford told the Cabinet meeting, that she wants to “market test” our libraries – politician-speak for flogging them off.

We know that LSSI wants to scoop up public assets on the cheap and turn them into money-spinning ventures. Which means that the residents of Croydon could lose out twice in any deal – failing to achieve the true worth for the buildings, books and other fixtures and fittings; and then having to pay for the services once LSSI get their hands on them.

It’s fantastic that Jon Rouse, Croydon’s busy CEO, was able to set up a meeting with his counterpart at Wandsworth and this company, perhaps even before Bashford had announced the “market testing”privatisation. We must assume that Bashford was never privy to Rouse’s meeting, since in response to direct questioning, she has always denied any involvement with LSSI. And “Book Token” Bashford would not dream of misleading Council Tax-payers, now would she?

“I have no problem with the chief executive meeting with LSSI. I didn’t know the meeting was going ahead but I am pleased that it did,” Fisher has said.

This would be the same Mike Fisher who throughout the council’s consultation said that there were residents’ groups and schools “queuing up” to run libraries. Inside Croydon has yet to establish one school, local group, residents’ association or campaign group which has received even a whisper from the council about how they might be able to take on the management of our libraries.  How odd.

Inside Croydon has already reported how the council “let go” a dozen of its trained library staff in April. Was that a deliberate attempt to reduce any staffing liabilities for any incoming private company, to sweeten the deal, perhaps? Of course, that could only be the case if Fisher and Bashford, without any public mandate and against the views of those who took part in the consultation, were already considering privatising our libraries.

If, as Fisher is reported to have said, the council will be talking to “a whole host of people” who could run the library service, will any interested group, organisation or company have equal opportunity to see the detail?

In the absence of any information from highly efficient Croydon Council’s official press operation (cost: £660,000 per year), here is the situation as we see it:

  • All 13 Croydon libraries, including Croydon central library at the Clock Tower, are included in the “market testing” exercise, not just the six under threat of closure under Bashford’s original and rejected scheme.
  • The Council has failed to inform residents of its radical change of plan, leaving most Council Tax-payers blissfully believing that their local library is “safe”.
  • Croydon has already had dealings with LSSI, a company with some history,  before releasing details to any other interested party. Commercially, for other parties, this would prejudice any possible deal.

Croydon Council: proud to swerve.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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2 Responses to Secret meetings and council silence on library sell-off

  1. snappydj says:

    “Today is June 26. Croydon Council has yet to announce formally any details behind the decision taken on libraries at the Cabinet meeting on June 13.”

    Is it a “Millionaire moment”.. you’ll have the answer…..after the break…

  2. This is a copy and paste of an excerpt of an email I sent to colleagues concerning the problem of fees going up for Library Users. Typical ones in my experience:

    ~

    The second reason why I have sent this email is to do with the risk of Fees going up in Libraries under Privatisation:

    Ok, this is a very reliable angle for explaining the issues facing the mentally ill. The first thing you need to understand is that your Mental Health can go up as well as down if you are mentally ill. Sometimes its good days and bad days, and sometimes it’s good weeks and bad weeks. In some cases it can be good fortnights and bad fortnights. Or good months and bad months. These are called ‘Variable Conditions’. Your health will change over a period of time between ‘not bad’ and ‘stuffed’ ( a medical term ). Even with medication. As sometimes life can be so stressful you just get pulled under. Pulled into relapse.

    That’s in very simple terms, but certainly accurate enough.

    So now let’s think about those books a Mental Health Service User borrowed from the library that need returning. Sadly the Service Users’ health has gone down the swanny due to, say, a bigger than expected Gas Bill. They were nervous about having the heating on over Christmas, did so, and are now panicking and stressed. This mucks up their health and they can’t leave the house for 2 weeks. They become reliant on ordering food in or going out really late at night when the streets are deserted and getting bits from the local garage. These ‘solutions’ to severe nerve problems do happen. Hiding in the day, only sneaking out at night, that kind of thing. They are real ‘symptoms’ of relapse.

    Obviously they won’t be able to get to The Library to return those books, seeing as they can’t face going out in daylight hours.

    Now if the Late Fee is only 10p per day they’ll owe 1.40 for 14 days per book. Not that scary. But what if the late fee is increased to 2 pounds per day? That won’t sound like much to a Corporate Manager, but what does it mean in reality? That’s 28 pounds per book. What if they have 2 books to return? 56 quid?

    This is the real problem. It’s easy enough for a Mental Health Service User to drop off the radar for 2 weeks due to ill health. And if that Late Fee goes up the cost sky-rockets for said Mental Health Service User.

    It’s also not much of a leap to see this being relevant for an OAP who’s had a fall and can’t walk far. Or a physically disabled person who’s Home-help is playing up. Or an OAP who has flu and little/ limited support. There are many ways for the sick and vulnerable to get stuck at home for a couple of weeks.

    Just to bring in some perspective I’ll now add this. As a Mentally Ill Person I get ESA Higher rate. This is 95 quid per week to cover food, bills, pets, and hobbies ( not including Rent and Council Tax ). It’s really not much is it? I’m supposed to spend about 30 pounds of that per week on food and toiletries to keep my health up and also my personal hygiene in good order. Both are a big deal obviously.

    Now add to that the utilities getting more and more expensive and… That 95 pounds just doesn’t go very far basically.

    Bring in a Library Late Fee of 28 pounds per book and we’re talking a disaster. 2 books is 2 weeks food money gone. Just because you were ill for a couple of weeks.

    I hope that clarifies how serious this ‘fees going up’ factor is. It is profiteering off of some of the most vulnerable people in society, as revenue is based on people not being able to return books on time.

    And it will genuinely put people off of using libraries once they’ve been stung 1 too many times by this increased Late Fee ( should it happen ). Libraries are services there to enrich the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Not terrify them into staying away.

    ~

    That covers my feelings on the subject. Let’s hope Croydon Council spot this and back the hell off on this one.

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