GENE BRODIE, our education, libraries and bookish gyms correspondent, reports on private meetings held by the council leadership to consider breaking an election pledge to Croydon’s voters
Croydon’s ruling Labour group is split over whether to break its manifesto commitment to keep all of the borough’s libraries open.
Inside Croydon has been given a full list of some informal voting conducted among councillors at Croydon Labour’s annual policy “away day”, held in Eastbourne in November, where they were asked to contemplate whether keeping libraries open was an election promise they would dare break.
Tony Newman, the council leader, and four other members of the all-powerful council cabinet are understood to have voted in favour of abandoning the commitment on libraries, as 15 voted to break a promise to electors, while 11 councillors voted to uphold the manifesto. Those opposed to the idea did not include a single cabinet member, Inside Croydon understands.
This was not a formal council decision-making meeting, but one in which policy options and development were discussed. The “break out” sessions saw the same question posed to two separate groups. In one, the vote went 8-7 in favour of upholding the pledge. But in a second group, the vote went 8-3 in favour of breaking the manifesto commitment.
That so many councillors, just 18 months into their term of office, are already prepared even to contemplate breaking one of the policies which saw them elected in May 2014 will be worrying for local Labour activists and campaigners, who have to make the case on the doorstep that Newman and their party are to be trusted to deliver on its promises.
While Croydon Conservatives failed to publish a manifesto ahead of the 2014 local elections – presumably because they can’t trust themselves to keep their word – Labour did issue a publication outlining their policies, entitled “Ambitious for Croydon”.
In the Culture section, it said: “Labour will seek to reverse the Conservative council’s sell-off of our libraries and ensure that they are run in the interest of local communities. We will not close libraries, but we will look at using models such as the Upper Norwood Library to continue providing library services throughout the borough on a sustainable, long-term footing.”
The emphatic bold type is how Croydon Labour decided to make its point in print.
But as Inside Croydon reported earlier this month, with pressure on the Town Hall finances, council officials have compiled a report looking at the usage of the borough’s 13 public libraries (Upper Norwood, which is jointly run with Lambeth, is treated separately).
It is the second time in six years that the local amenities are under threat. The previous botched consultation, conducted by 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. It appears fairly clear that there are not the available funds to reverse that decline.
One way of creating a library investment fund might be to explore other methods of operating the borough’s public libraries – such as the volunteer trust-led model being applied at Upper Norwood. Other options include re-purposing some libraries, as another Labour-run local authority, Lambeth, is contemplating by handing two buildings to private sports operators Greenwich Leisure Ltd to convert into “bookish gyms”.
Another option which council officials have put forward in Croydon is to close the least well-utilised libraries and sell the buildings, using the money raised from real estate to invest in the borough’s remaining libraries. Under such a scheme, Norbury and Sanderstead might be considered to be under the greatest threat of closure.
Inside Croydon understands that the library discussion in Eastbourne was led in one session by Sean Fitzsimons, the Addiscombe councillor who chairs the council’s influential scrutiny committee. The questions posed to his fellow Labour councillors were along the lines of: “Who is in favour of keeping our manifesto pledge not to close libraries?” And “Who is in favour of breaking our pledge to close some libraries and have four or five well-resourced libraries?”
The resulting discussions became particularly heated. Newman, Paul Scott and Hamida Ali, all councillors for Woodside ward, are understood to have voted in favour of library closures, which prompted an angry response from some of their colleagues from wards where libraries are valued community assets, and who pointed out to the council leader and Scott that there is no public library in Woodside.
We asked several councillors who attended Labour’s Eastbourne meeting to confirm how they voted. Of those who responded, none denied that the discussion had taken place.
Those that did respond confirmed that our voting tally was an accurate reflection of the outcome.
One said that they voted to “Stick to it”, meaning the manifesto, “but not necessarily unchanged. Some of the assets should work harder.”
We asked Timothy Godfrey, the cabinet member responsible for the borough’s libraries, how he voted during the discussions in Eastbourne. Confirming that a discussion had taken place, he said only, “We aren’t closing any libraries.”
In which case, Croydon could be getting its own version of volunteer-run bookish gyms, then.
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