GENE BRODIE, our bookish gyms correspondent, on the latest inadvertent slip by a council cabinet member which betrays the next possible target for the council’s ‘award-winning’ house-builders
Brick by Brick’s insatiable appetite for turning public property into mainly private flats could see the council’s “award-winning” house-builder (Total number of homes completed since 2015: ZERO) next turn its attention to the borough’s libraries.
That’s the conclusion from comments made by a council cabinet member during a scrutiny committee in the Town Hall chamber, after some astute probing on behalf of the people of Croydon by one sharp-witted councillor.
Brick by Brick has already muscled in on one of the borough’s 13 libraries, in South Norwood.
Brick by Brick built a £500,000 block of flats next to the Aldi near Norwood Junction Station, with a small library space squeezed in on the ground floor, while getting the site of the existing library on the junction of Selhurst Road and Lawrence Road on which they will build even more flats. Thus, the current five-floor library building is being replaced by a single floor of library space in the new build which will have flats on four floors above, too.
The rationale offered when this scheme was proposed – to barely a murmur of public opposition – was that the cost of the new building is little more than the repair bills for the crumbling concrete 1970s-built South Norwood Library. In fact, when the land values of the flats above the new building and those likely to be built on the former site are factored in, there’s potential for significant profits for Brick by Brick out of the scheme.
How the library space was being reduced in the new library was never raised as an issue, the council claiming “the proposed new building would be purpose-built and provide a flexible space that would have the same number of books as now. However, it would also offer more computers, more work spaces, and also allow for out-of-hours use for additional community activities, including adult learning classes”.
The borough’s library service is reassuringly back in-house, after the disastrous outsourcing efforts by the previous Tory administration, which had handed over the running of our libraries to Carillion, which collapsed in a heap of debt and bad-faith earlier this year.
Yet the prospect of the current Blairite-dominated Labour council “sweating its assets” through the bungling Brick by Brick builders has the potential to do far greater damage to the borough’s libraries than even Croydon’s hapless Tories ever managed.
Last week’s scrutiny committee was supposedly considering the “strategy” for the borough’s library service, with a report by the council’s officials set to be duly rubber-stamped by the cabinet in the new year.
Thankfully, one of the committee members, Labour councillor Joy Prince, had read the report, and found the latest barely hidden agenda.
“The paper mentions library buildings,” said the councillor for Waddon ward.
“I’m wondering to what extent you’re working with asset colleagues on how we can maximise the value or the income from the assets which are library buildings.
“Is there scope for, I don’t know, building flats on top of them, while obviously getting money from that to buy books or whatever?”
The ever-eager-to-please Oliver “Caddy” Lewis, the cabinet member for butt plugs, libraries and stuff, took the bait and embarked on a spiel about the council-owned properties with an answer full of business-friendly, Blairite soundbytes.
“We are absolutely looking at how we can get the best value from our libraries portfolio,” Lewis said.
The phrase “best value from our libraries portfolio” is the sort of thing you’d expect from a tawdry suburban estate agent, not the person supposed to be the champion of the borough’s libraries. The attitude should trouble the borough’s Council Tax-payers.
Lewis is also pursuing a trial scheme at Selsdon Library where it would be “open longer but staffed for the same amount of time”.
Lewis thinks that using CCTV and technology could allow library users access to the building, and its much-depleted stock of books, in the evenings, when the council’s librarian staff have left work for the day.
Selsdon Library was built next to Sainsbury’s, and Lewis reckons that the supermarket will help to “police” the out-of-hours library access.
“I think what that will do is deliver a more flexible services so people can go before work or after work and they can use the library more on their terms, which I think is where we want to get to with a modern library service.”
As we’ve all come to expect, Lewis didn’t mention what the borough’s librarians think is “where they want to get to with the service”.
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Its fine to consider developing Library land, so long as the existing facilities are retain or enhanced. Every time I go into the central library there seems to be less and less books and more and more open space – what is the point of disposing of books that people want to see or refer to? I have found many reference items are no longer available!! There is no money in selling off old library books, and outdated copies of travel books, etc are of little value (yet they keep those!) I recently had a need for travel books and found them 12 years out of date and providing long since out of date info.
I purchased three art books from a Croydon Library sale costing me £7.
Were I to buy the same three books on Abebooks, the international rare book market, they would have cost me £187.00.
Talking about flogging off the family silver…….
A few councils have done this already, and built a residential block on top with a library beneath.
Thinking of books, I think back to book tokens, and then think of the word “tokenism”.
There seems no point at all in having “library tokenism” with a large number of small libraries like tiny shops under residential blocks, scattered around the borough, just to give the impression that we care about literacy or culture.
Libraries seem to vary hugely across London. Some do seem to be sad places, with few books, or, paraphrasing what IC contributor above mentions, seem to be like an iron-curtain supermarket, with lots of empty space, and a few shelves containing stock past its sell-by-date.
In some parts of London, libraries are literally full of people studying, and homeless people keeping warm, in a safe space. I myself when unemployed at various times of life found the library a warm refuge, to be in a place with others, with things to read and computers to go on.
It wonder if the council keeps statistics on usage ? No doubt, book loans are easy to monitor, but what about the social benefits ?
So how do we finance the better book stock, the new furniture to replace the shabby old sticks of furniture, add more computers for people to use for study, better facilities for children story-telling toilets, library gardens , library cafes, etc etc etc?
Well, in some cases, I would certainly be in favour of full redevelopment of the library site, and building a new residential block, with or without library underneath. Maybe the library should be relocated to a place where it will be more accessible and better used. Maybe the library underneath is a good idea, but AVOID token library development with useless facilities and tiny stock.
In the Purley and Coulsdon area, I would support a reasoned look at the future options for both main libraries. Both are characterful buildings, which should be retained or grafted sensitively into a new development, but the appropriateness of the locations as a library for today’s needs, need to be reviewed in the light of –in Purley– a much-needed future project to the Pool and Leisure Centre, and — in Coulsdon– , the CALAT centre renewal project.
With Purley Library, IF, after a thorough appraisal, the consensus were to keep the library on the site, the building or the main the facade of the building could be retained, and ( I am going to spur hatred in the breasts of many IC readers, to say this….) I could imagine a really nice new residential block above it. This would be smaller than the proposed Purley tower, and would not overshadow anything much.
If Libraries could be re-imagined, renewed and restocked and refurbished, with funds generated by sensible residential development, I would be in favour.
The quality of the new projects is key to whether this shpould be done.
Th second is whether the funding generated will be invested mainly in the library service, or diverted to other things.
With dwindling funding, in austerity Britain (for many) , with budget- cut, cash-strapped local authorities, the current picture for most library services is still of mere survival.
The decline of the High Street in the face of internet shopping is mirrored by the decline in reading real books and paper newspapers, which must be part of the decline of Libraries.
The the survival of both and reversal of decline should be national priorities.
With regard to Sebastian’s query re selling off books, some years ago I donated some good quality art books to the local library. I wonder who decides which books to sell off , and the rationale.
Even if borrowing of a book is infrequent, why have libraries with empty space and few shelves with few books? Lack of choice discourages users. Keep shelves filled , with lots of books.