Libraries correspondent GENE BRODIE has spent months undercover to get the consultation documents which Croydon Council tried to keep secret. Now we are able to publish those papers, the reason for our council’s reluctance to share the information becomes clear
Did Councillor Sara Bashford deliberately mislead Croydon last year before getting the council to agree to spend £275,000 towards the outsourcing of the borough’s 13 libraries, claiming that this was what residents had asked for?
That is the question which library campaigners from across the country, local residents and opposition groups all want answered, after the release of council documents which show there was never the “overwhelming desire” from the public for the privatisation of Croydon’s libraries, as Bashford claimed 12 months ago.
In June last year, a council press release issued apparently with Bashford’s authority as the cabinet member in charge of libraries, stated: “Following a lengthy consultation period, Croydon Council has developed a plan, directly in response to residents’ opinions, that could allow external organisations the opportunity to run Croydon’s libraries.”
But according to documents seen by Inside Croydon, such claims of public support for businesses to take over the running the borough’s libraries are entirely false.
Inside Croydon has been sent a copy of part of the council’s previously unpublished consultation responses. It consists of 33 closely spaced pages of public comments , taken from 5,641 responses. According to Croydon Council, the responses we have seen were deliberately categorised by council officers under “outsourcing”.
Yet in all 33 pages, there is not one mention of “privatise” or “privatisation”, and just a single use of the word “outsource” – and that from a resident complaining about a fall in performance of outsourced council services.
“Overwhelming desire”? Not a single response from the Croydon consultation suggested that the council should outsource our libraries – handing over the management of the borough’s library service to an outside organisation.
The consultation took place in late 2010 and early 2011. The council made several public claims about the responses to the consultation. In one council statement, they claimed that, “The idea to explore the [outsourcing] option has arisen from the council’s recent extensive survey of library users. Nearly 7,500 people responded to the consultation exercise, and more than 15,000 signatures were submitted on petitions.”
When challenged, our council – motto “Proud to Serve” – refused to back up any of its claims with its evidence.
It has taken more than a year of patient persistence by dedicated local library campaigners, and ultimately an order from the Information Commissioner, for Croydon to be forced to release the information.
“This evidence confirms that the consultation was a sham,” said Elizabeth Ash, a Sanderstead resident and leading figure in the national save libraries network.
“It is absolutely appalling that residents have been duped into believing that Croydon Council is acting on their views. To consult but ignore the comments and ideas offered and then fabricate the findings is a total betrayal of residents’ trust,” Ash said.
“Book Token” Bashford – so named because she seriously suggested it would be cheaper to hand out book tokens, rather than lend books from libraries – has failed to respond to Inside Croydon when she was offered an opportunity to deny that she had misrepresented the outcome of the consultation to suit a privatisation agenda.
In the council press release from last June, Bashford said: “The discussion of possible library closures has been an incredibly emotive subject amongst our residents, and I have been extremely pleased to hear so clearly how much they value this council-run service. If we agree to pursue this option [outsourcing], I hope that it will bring forward offers that will allow us to maintain – and even improve – our current excellent network of branch libraries.”
The abuse of the consultation also managed to distort the original purpose of the survey, which had been conducted to find public views on the threat of closure to six of the borough’s libraries. Bashford used its unpublished “results” to apply an unwanted piece of dogma to all 13 of Croydon’s libraries.
Among the companies being considered to take over the running of Croydon’s libraries is a subsidiary of Laing. Laing is the property development company which has a £450 million deal with Croydon Council, where the details have been shrouded in secrecy.
Tony Newman, the leader of the council’s opposition Labour group, says that the distortion of the library consultation results to justify a policy is part of a pattern. “As with the Tory Council’s incinerator plan and their attempts to cover-up the true cost of their luxury new council HQ offices, this plan to sell off our libraries for profit, possibly to the same company that they awarded the council HQ contract to, is shrouded in secrecy and has no public support.
“Potentially, it sees every library operating in Croydon under the threat of closure.”
Bashford’s “day job” is as a constituency assistant to Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, where she works alongside Croydon Mayor Eddy Arram. Between that job and her £42,747 in council cabinet allowances, she is estimated £60,000-plus per year in tax-payers’ cash as a public servant.
In April, Bashford, a councillor for Selsdon and Ballards, was relieved of her Croydon Council cabinet responsibilities for libraries. And arts. And sport. Croydon Conservatives claim that she was not sacked, because Bashford has retained a place in the Town Hall cabinet. Her new role oversees “corporate and voluntary services”.
Which includes Freedom of Information requests.
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- Croydon quizzed on hiring of security guards for Bashford (insidecroydon.com)
- Council cock-up stops comments on library consultation (insidecroydon.com)
- “Book Token” takes one in the Eye on library closures (insidecroydon.com)
- Civica pulls out of libraries bid because of risk to its “brand” (insidecroydon.com)
- Council to spend £1m to furnish its new headquarters (insidecroydon.com)