The future of Upper Norwood Library has been thrown into doubt once again, this time after a Labour-run local authority announced its intention to reduce funding by 60 per cent in 2016.
Upper Norwood’s library is unique due to its position at the top of Westow Hill, seeing it effectively servicing residents from five south London boroughs. For a century, the library had been funded jointly by Lambeth and Croydon councils, until Croydon’s previous Conservative administration broke the agreement three years ago.
But now it is Lambeth taking the lead in reducing funding under the current arrangement, in which the two boroughs had pledged to fund the library jointly.
This could prove to be especially embarrassing for Croydon Labour’s leadership: the MP for the area, Croydon North, is Steve Reed OBE, who until 2012 was the leader of Lambeth Council, while Reed’s parliamentary “head of office” is Matthew Bennett, a councillor for nearby Gipsy Hill ward and influential cabinet member at Brixton Town Hall.
Lambeth has issued no fewer than 22 hefty documents as its “Cultural Services by 2020” consultation, which it expects residents to read. This all includes plans to sell-off two libraries elsewhere in the borough and to reduce funding to another two in addition to Upper Norwood.
Lambeth proposes that Upper Norwood would no longer be part of Lambeth’s statutory library provision.
The news is a bitter blow to supporters of the library, who believed it was on a firm footing in the run-up to its transfer to Upper Norwood Library Trust, a charity set up in the wake of previous cuts to Croydon’s funding. In an email to supporters of the Upper Norwood Library Campaign last week, Robert Gibson, the trust’s co-chair, said that those working to preserve the service were “shellshocked” and “tired of this rollercoaster ride”.
The Friends of Lambeth Libraries have said that they are “appalled” by their borough’s proposals. “As the news spreads, it is being greeted with horror everywhere,” they told Brixton Buzz. “Lambeth needs all its libraries. And it needs them all to be run properly – by professionals.
“The financial plan to support so-called ‘community libraries’ simply doesn’t add up. They are being set up to fail.”
As Brixton Buzz observes so accurately, “Deliberately running down a local government service as a justification to axe it is usually a tactic used by the Tories.”
The knock-on effect of Lambeth’s proposals is that Croydon can now follow suit with a funding cut of its own for Upper Norwood.
Last November, Croydon’s Labour administration made good on an election pledge to match Lambeth’s funding of £180,000 per year. That included an additional £47,500 over the amount previously allocated. The extra cash raised hopes that the library, which has only opened three days a week since April 2013, would return to full-time opening.
It has now emerged, in an offer made on the same day as the launch of the Lambeth consultation, that both councils have slashed the funding that will be made available to the trust. Under the three-year package, Upper Norwood Library will get £120,000 from Lambeth and Croydon for 2015-2016, but only £50,000 from each council for the following two years.
This was described on Twitter last week by Timothy Godfrey, Croydon’s cabinet member for culture, as an “exciting opportunity”. We have no reason to believe that this was intended ironically.
“Hopefully Trust will grab it,” Godfrey tweeted. But he also said that if the trust rejected the deal, the council “would seek an alternative organisation to work with”.
Godfrey told Inside Croydon, “We pledged in the election to match-fund Lambeth and that is what we have done from October 2014.
“Given the sustained attack on local government funding, this is a good deal for Upper Norwood and guarantees a community-based library run by a strong independent trust. The trust will also have the building to fully utilise and hopefully extract income from as well.
“Obviously we would like to increase funding, and if the financial environment for local government improves, then we will be able to do that.”
Lambeth’s consultation says that its plans for Upper Norwood Library “may also include the buildings being transferred to independent charitable trusts, community trusts and enterprises …”
But it also adds: “If no independent charitable trust, community trust or enterprise comes forward by 2016 we will consult local communities on the options before making a final decision on the next steps which could include closure of some buildings.”
Inside Croydon reported in 2012 how the then Tory-run Croydon Council had been carrying out secret valuation work of the library building and books, after determining to withdraw unilaterally from its operation “with a real prospect that the library will close”.
This time around, with both funding authorities apparently in agreement, there seems a real possibility that a similar exercise will go ahead, just not in secret.
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