GENE BRODIE on the announcement of a council consultation which puts the future of the borough’s libraries in doubt yet again
A fortnight ago, Inside Croydon reported the startling news that some of Croydon’s Labour councillors are prepared to abandon their 2014 election pledge to maintain the library service. At a private meeting last autumn, 16 Labour councillors voted to break the manifesto commitment, with 10 voting to keep their word on libraries.
With the council leader, Tony Newman – a man who thinks £148,000 for one night’s cycle racing is money well-spent – trying to ridicule our story, and with cabinet member for culture Timothy Godfrey repeating the mantra “there will be no library closures”, we concluded our report with the observation, “Croydon could be getting its own version of volunteer-run bookish gyms”.
To quote from a book, “And lo, it came to pass.”
Today, in papers published ahead of next Monday’s cabinet meeting, the council reveals a library public “consultation” – the borough’s second in less than five years – which it will hold this spring and will use to justify going down the same cost-cutting route as Lambeth’s “co-operative” Labour-run council.
Lambeth’s flogging off of two library sites and handing over two others to a gym operator has been described as an “omnishambles”, and could yet end up with a high court challenge.
With Croydon’s libraries having been run by a building firm for the past two years, the council trying to convert the properties into “bookish gyms” or making other such changes no longer seems so far-fetched.
Today’s announcement in Croydon is equally likely to stir up more local antipathy towards the Labour council and, yet again, shows that leader Newman has a poor grasp of political timing. The Croydon libraries consultation is due to open next Tuesday, and run until May 2 – throughout the period of the London election campaign. It is as if Newman is deliberately undermining the Labour candidates’ chances.
As with so many of these exercises in window-dressing, the consultation’s outcome is a foregone conclusion, and it will be used by the council to justify whatever cost-cutting measures it decides it needs to implement as the Labour council continues to follow the Tory Government’s austerity agenda.
You can read the 20-page libraries consultation report to the cabinet here. Those who read books and understand the meanings of words may notice the abuse of the word “ambitious” in the report’s title.
The model of Upper Norwood Library, which is operated jointly with Lambeth, is put forward as one option, as the library which serves all of Crystal Palace looks set for a volunteer-run future. Campaigners there, though, protest that the professional library staff and users of the century-old local amenity have been treated shoddily by Lambeth and Croydon councils.
In the report, the council says that it is “determined to ensure Croydon residents can access and enjoy a borough wide service which is fit for the 21st century and which provides value for money and improved services for people in a way they want to use them.”
Libraries, the report states, “will be delivered in partnership with local communities, meeting and adapting to local need. Involvement could range from being an occasional volunteer to a group taking over the delivery of the service.” It is not difficult to portray that as even more job cuts in the borough’s library service.
The cabinet papers also include tables on the usage of Croydon’s 13 branch libraries. Inside Croydon highlighted last month that this has already been a matter of private discussions among the Labour group, and that at least two less well-used libraries – Sanderstead and Norbury – could be under serious threat as a consequence, with the sale of the property likely to realise a considerable capital sum which might be used to fund the future for the borough’s remaining 11 libraries.
Croydon Council has to maintain just four libraries across the borough to maintain its legal, statutory duty, under Section 7 of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, which requires the provision of “a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.
Funding for Croydon’s 13 libraries will fall by £217,000 in 2016-2017, as part of the £29million cuts the council is implementing to 2019.
The previous library consultation, conducted under the last Tory administration, began by seeking to close six branch libraries. It ended by effectively privatising the library service, which is now run by Carillion.
Given that our borough has, according to the council report, a below-average stock of books in its libraries and buys fewer books each year than most other councils in the country, some might argue that it is already failing to provide that “comprehensive and efficient” service required by law. The lack of up-to-date books might also be seen as part of the reason for diminishing visitor numbers.
Nonetheless, the new consultation will mean that the future of all but the statutory libraries – at Croydon Central, Selsdon, Thornton Heath and Purley – are once again under some threat.
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