GENE BRODIE has seen confidential council documents which show that the borough’s most expensive-to-run libraries, in Sanderstead and Norbury, are vulnerable to cost-cutting closure
Croydon Council has just cottoned on that this Saturday is National Libraries Day.
The council’s press office – annual budget around £600,000 – got around to publicising the borough’s part in the February 6 national event with an online posting on… February 2.
Perhaps Croydon’s reluctance to celebrate its library provision is the concern that some of Croydon’s libraries might be closed by the time 2017’s National Libraries Day comes round.
With the Conservative Government intending to cut its redistribution of our taxes to Croydon by an eye-watering 75per cent compared to 2010, discretionary services provided in branch libraries look to be vulnerable to closure. And with library buildings being possible sites for housing, the pressure for some closures will be overwhelming.
It will be the second time in just six years that Croydon’s chain of 13 local libraries (Upper Norwood, which is jointly run with Lambeth, is treated separately) will be considered for possible closure. The previous botched consultation, under the Tory administration and run by Sara “Book Token” Bashford, generated widespread opposition and ended up with the effective privatisation of the borough’s library service, with its management ending up in the hands of Carillion, a firm better known for running building sites than book collections.
With the loss of experienced, professional library staff, reduced spending on book stock and poor levels of maintenance, the state of the borough’s libraries have been deteriorating over several years.
According to confidential council data seen by Inside Croydon, some of the borough’s libraries are much less efficient than others.
Leaks from Fisher’s Folly, the council’s offices, forced Timothy Godfrey, the Labour cabinet member now responsible for libraries, to admit that they are looking at closing all libraries except the four that they have to provide under statute law – at the Central library, Ashburton, Selsdon and Thornton Heath.
Godfrey opposed the Tory proposals for closure and privatisation, but he is now faced with a tough decision where action now, to cut out the least efficient, might save something from a more drastic butchering Croydon’s library service.
Libraries like Bradmore Green, in Old Coulsdon, at South Norwood and Norbury – the only three libraries posted as holding National Libraries Day events this Saturday – are all at risk of closure or being passed over to volunteer groups.
Bradmore Green was one of six libraries threatened with closure under Bashford’s proposals in 2010, when the councillor – now deputy leader of the Conservative group at the Town Hall – actually suggested in all seriousness that it would be cheaper to give residents book tokens than keep running a library service. Her political ineptitude led to her being discretely moved sideways soon after, though she has kept her day job of running local MP Gavin Barwell’s office.
There are elements of pathos and pleading in what the South Norwood librarians are organising for its celebration this Saturday, as it urges residents to: “Visit South Norwood Library and tell us why you love your local library! Fill in a heart shaped label and display it in the library for all to see and enjoy.”
Norbury Library has crafts and stories in the spirit of Chinese New Year and Bradmore Green has a coffee morning for the somewhat older people who tend to attend Conservative Party community events to discuss the night time economy for the yoof.
Library plans in neighbouring Lambeth announced late last year caused widespread public outrage when the Progress-inspired “co-operative” council proposed the sale of two library sites for their multi-million-pound real estate value, palming off others – including Upper Norwood – to be run by volunteers, and to hand over other libraries to leisure operators to create what have been dubbed “bookish gyms”.
Looking at what is on at Croydon’s libraries this week shows what is at risk of being lost in our local communities if the nine non-statutory libraries are shut – access to training on using the IT that allows you to book council services that the council does not provide any other way; toddler exercise classes; heritage and ancestry research talks; Harry Potter nights; homework clubs; reading for the young; Chinese New Year celebrations; and English reading for the Tamil community.
It all underlines that our library service is much more a community service than simply lending out dusty books. But when measured in terms of how much it costs to lend out books or welcome visitors into each library, the cost differences are dramatic.
When modern Selsdon Library was built alongside Sainsbury’s, was it really necessary to keep the nearby Sanderstead library open? When Thornton Heath Library was refurbished, did Norbury Library need to be kept on the life support?
The libraries in Norbury and Sanderstead, according to the confidential figures seen by Inside Croydon, are the most expensive libraries to run when measured by the cost of each book loaned out, or on the simple basis of visits to a library. It costs around £4 to loan out each book each time the book is taken home by a user at these cramped old libraries.
The nearby and newer Selsdon and Thornton Heath libraries can get those books out the door for half the cost of their older cousins. With the economies of scale that the Central Library has, the Katharine Street operation can dispense loaned books out at just 60p a time.
It seems that the council, now under Labour control, is seriously considering the possibility of closing one or two libraries, selling the land for housing, and investing that money raised from private developers on renewing the stock of books the borough holds and enhancing the status of its remaining libraries.
Such a move might ensure that there remains more than just the four statutory libraries in Croydon still functioning into the next decade to celebrate National Libraries Day.
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