GENE BRODIE, our libraries and bookish gyms correspondent, on the council’s latest crass move over another bogus-looking consultation
Croydon’s Labour-run council is being accused of trying to “fix” the borough’s latest consultation on the running of its public libraries, by making it as difficult as possible for those who most depend on the service to take part in the survey.
According to the council’s own figures, only 700 people in the borough, which has a population of nearly 350,000, have taken part in the consultation so far. That’s compared to the 70,000 people that the council says use library services each year.
As a result of the poor response rate, the council announced yesterday that it has been forced to extend the consultation period, to May 16.
But the council is stubbornly refusing to make paper copies of the consultation forms available to library users, and there have been complaints that the consultation is not even being publicised to the people who are most likely to be affected by the findings of the survey – the library users themselves.
Indeed, Timothy Godfrey, Labour’s cabinet member responsible for libraries, yesterday made an appeal for people who don’t use libraries to take part in the self-serving consultation.
“The consultation is superficial and is being done on the cheap, and like so many Croydon Council services these days is only available online,” one library campaigner told Inside Croydon. “The trouble with that is that by making the survey online only, it discriminates against two groups who depend on library services the most – the poor and the old.
“The obligatory equalities assessment of Tim Godfrey’s consultation will make for interesting reading. It could render the whole thing null and void.”
The appeal for non-users of libraries to take part in the consultation comes in the week when Upper Norwood Library, which has run a professionally staffed service in Crystal Palace for 115 years, will be stripped of its professional librarians. The library is jointly funded by Croydon and Lambeth, but the staff are being withdrawn as part of Lambeth’s “co-operative” council’s austerity cost-cutting.
Godfrey is on the record as stating that he is watching developments in Upper Norwood with interest, clearly signalling that self-service libraries run by volunteers are one of the options he is considering for Croydon, once he has the consultation “results” to justify making further cuts to an already run-down service.
One key and undoubtedly leading question in the survey, the response to which will justify the volunteer-isation of libraries, asks: “We believe that our libraries are important community hubs and that they should be relevant, accessible and part of your neighbourhood. Would you be willing to be involved in the running of your local library? This could be as a day to day volunteer, a homework helper, help in the running of activities at your neighbourhood library or even as a group taking over the delivery of an entire local branch.”
Godfrey has maintained that none of the 13 libraries under Croydon’s sole control will close. Whether they have futures as professionally staffed facilities seems under serious threat.
Closures, though, have not been entirely excluded as a possibility.
Six months ago, at a private meeting of Croydon’s Labour councillors, when asked whether they would consider breaking that manifesto pledge on libraries and opting for closures, a majority of those polled said that they should.
Among the councillors thought to have voted in favour of library closures, rather than actively oppose Tory austerity, were Tony Newman, the council leader, and John Wentworth, the Upper Norwood ward councillor and avid football-watcher, who also serves as the election agent for Croydon North MP Steve Reed OBE, the former leader of Lambeth Council.
At last week’s council meeting, Godfrey’s cabinet colleague, Toni Letts, laid out a vision for the borough’s libraries’ future which, according to “focus groups”, could include seeing them being converted into coffee shops with lounges, or running small souvenir shops. Maybe these anonymous and unaccountable focus groups had recently visited Waterstones and had it confused with the role of a public library?
It seems apparent that none of the focus groups included Caitlin Moran, the Murdoch newspaper columnist who was home-schooled (the local schools weren’t very good, apparently; sound familiar?) and so relied on her public library for her education.
Letts, in her Town Hall speech last week, just about stopped short of suggesting conversions into “bookish gyms”, as is being done at two Lambeth libraries.
But no one on Croydon Council was able to elaborate how these focus groups were comprised or when they met. Any suggestion that it was simply a quick meeting held between chief executive Nathan Elvery and his interim successor Jo Negrini, by a water cooler in the council offices, in which they discussed ways of “releasing the real estate potential of our library estate” have not been denied.
Meanwhile, library users continue to be excluded, quite deliberately, from the consultation. The council claims that, “Anyone who does not have access to the internet at home or needs help to do so can use a computer at their local library or use a self-service computer at Fisher’s Folly in Cost A Mint Walk, where staff are available should people require further assistance.”
That the crass commercialisation of the borough’s libraries is definitely an option was further signalled in Godfrey’s comments in a council press release yesterday. Godfrey said: “We’re determined to keep our libraries open, but we are equally keen to see more people making use of them for a wider range of services and activities.”
Note that: “A wider range of services and activities”.
“If we are going to attract new groups from across our communities we need to understand what they want from these fantastically versatile buildings.”
And note that: “Fantastically versatile buildings”. Yep. Bookish gyms could still be a possibility.
Before Labour won control of the council in 2014, Godfrey was adamant that cost savings in the library service could be found in back-office facilities, and that the out-sourced management contract, currently with building firm Carillion, might also be reviewed and re-negotiated. Neither of those options appear to have been implemented, while Croydon has also been subject to ever greater cuts in its grant from central government.
“When we put forward options and recommendations later this year they will shape our library service for the next decade,” Godfrey said, “so I’d rather give people a few more weeks to give us their ideas rather than miss the opportunity to hear what they have to say.”
At risk of sending our loyal reader’s irony meter off the scale, we appreciate that as an online-only publication, calling for paper versions of a public consultation to be made available might seem a touch odd. However, Inside Croydon has not, and probably never will, have any statutory duties to the residents – all the residents – of the borough. Our council, and our councillors, do.
So, if you want Councillors Godfrey, Newman and Wentworth to hear what you have to say about our public libraries, and you’d prefer to deliver your thoughts using pen and paper, you can try to request a printed version of the consultation form from them as follows:
Councillor Newman, c/o Town Hall, Katharine Street, Croydon, CR0 1NX. Or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Councillor Wentworth, c/o Town Hall, Katharine Street, Croydon, CR0 1NX. Or email: email@example.com
Councillor Godfrey, c/o Town Hall, Katharine Street, Croydon, CR0 1NX. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org
And don’t forget to remind them that they have said that they don’t want to “miss the opportunity to hear what you have to say”.
- This Saturday, a mass protest is planned at Upper Norwood Library against the withdrawal of librarians
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