Our bookish gyms correspondent, GENE BRODIE, on how the Labour-run council is clearing the way for more non-unionised volunteer-run libraries than the Town Hall’s Tories ever managed
Croydon Council has been accused of secrecy again, this time after stopping most of the borough’s elected councillors from seeing a consultation report on the borough’s libraries for nine months.
The report, when released last week, names four libraries – Coulsdon, Purley, Sanderstead and Shirley – as suitable for relocation or redevelopment as part of money-spinning property deals.
The 243-page report offers plenty else that the Labour-run council needed to keep under wraps, too, such as the creeping de-professionalisation of the borough’s library service, through an increased use of volunteers.
The report, compiled by consultants Red Quadrant, was completed in September 2018.
Yet its dynamite recommendations were withheld from councillors until just hours before last week’s cabinet meeting, where they were duly rubber-stamped by a handful of senior council members who are on Tony Newman’s pay roll.
Oliver “Ollie” Lewis, the cabinet member for shit theatre and library cuts, has failed to deny that some of the borough’s libraries could be closed or moved as part of multi-million-pound property deals.
Indeed, last December, after he had already had three months in which to absorb the detail and implications of the Red Quadrant report, Lewis sounded more like an estate agent than a champion of Croydon’s culture when he boasted to the council’s scrutiny committee, “We are absolutely looking at how we can get the best value from our libraries portfolio.”
Any such property developments seem likely to be handed to the council’s house-builder, Brick by Brick.
Brick by Brick has already been given South Norwood Library for redevelopment, work on which is expected to begin as soon as the struggling builder manages to finish the replacement building, close to Norwood Junction Station.
Following the previous Tory council’s decision to out-source the borough’s libraries, Carillion’s five-year spell handling of the borough’s books stock and “community hubs” is widely regarded as disastrous. Indeed, the Red Quadrant review says as much.
“In 2017-2018, Croydon spent less on its library service for a borough of its size than the majority of authorities in outer London. This is reflected in lower than average staffing levels, stock budgets and most other library costs,” they say.
“However, it is now apparent that the external contract for library service delivery was priced at well below the market rate and may not have covered the direct costs of the service.” Doh.
Last week, in finally releasing the full detail of the consultants’ report, Lewis said, “Our libraries plan works over a longer period and we have a commitment to refurbish all of our 13 libraries over 10 years.”
Yet close examination of the Red Quadrant recommendations show a handful of Croydon’s libraries earmarked for “relocation”, co-location or “space saving” – the sort of library closures by stealth which Newman and Lewis’s chums in Blairite-run Lambeth also pushed through under controversial circumstances, including the costly conversion of one library into a “bookish gym”, now operated by Greenwich Leisure.
The Red Quadrant report was commissioned by Croydon in the wake of the Carillion collapse, and it is obvious that the consultants were given a pretty specific brief.
The first sentence of the report’s executive summary show them getting their excuses in early for library cuts: “This report is designed to provide a range of options that Croydon Council can consider as you work to develop a modern, relevant and effective library service, within a national and local context of decreasing local authority budgets.” Them’s our italics.
They do lay it on with a trowl: “Local authority finances are under ongoing pressure everywhere, including in Croydon, and libraries are not exempt from those pressures.
“It is therefore timely to assess a broad range of options now, including some that could potentially deliver savings, not only to identify ways to improve the current service but also to be prepared to adapt to future financial pressures.” Clear?
The next 240 pages provide no rejection of Tory austerity measures on behalf of the Labour-run authority, nor do they offer any insights to suggest altering the funding situation, beyond closures or flogging off buildings.
That this report is all about squeezing what value remains out of the council property “portfolio” (as Lewis would have it) is made abundantly clear in the title of one of the four reports Red Quadrant compiled in their study: “A review of assets”.
“We have drawn together options that could improve the current service (working within current budgets) as well as options that would deliver savings should these be required at a future point,” the consultants state, bleakly.
There is barely a mention throughout the report of Upper Norwood Library, which Croydon operated jointly with Lambeth for more than a century. The fate of Upper Norwood, since both local authorities opted to cut its funding and blame the other for doing so, offers a glimpse into the grim future facing our other public libraries in Croydon, in the vision as laid out by Lewis and Red Quadrant.
Despite all kinds of pledges and assurances from local politicians in the past that they would properly resource Upper Norwood, today it is a community-run facility which depends on volunteers, and in renting out its space to various organisations and businesses to eke out what cash it can.
Needing to raise £225,000 per year just to stay open, they are constantly seeking donations from the public, and this Friday they are staging a fund-raiser with comedian Mark Steel where tickets are on sale for a mere 85 quid… Some tickets may still be available.
Despite obligations on local councils, and indeed on the government, to provide proper funding for the provision of public libraries as a statutory service, only strenuous local campaigning has managed to keep Upper Norwood Library open in any form at all.
Upper Norwood’s building was considered for a property sale at one stage, too, and as far as Red Quadrant’s review of Croydon’s 13 other libraries, its hidden agenda is barely hidden at all.
Early in their report, as they crunch the numbers, the death knell for little-used Sanderstead Library rings loud: “More than half of your library use is at Croydon Central library. Three other libraries – Ashburton, Selsdon and Thornton Heath – had more than 100,000 visits in 2017-2018. At the other end of the scale, Sanderstead library only had 36,000 visits.”
It is apparent that the report’s authors had also been given some sort of steer over where cuts or closures ought to be made – with references to social deprivation and exclusion attempting to rule out any doom-laden suggestions for most of the libraries in Labour-voting wards in the north of the borough.
The crunch comes in Red Quadrant’s “Asset review”.
Of Coulsdon Library, they state: “It might be possible to relocate, and this is worth considering if significant benefits would arise from colocation… It may also be feasible to redevelop the site to incorporate a modern library facility and housing, given the prime high street location.”
Norbury Library on Beatrice Avenue is currently under-going a consultation on plans to refurbish the building. Red Quadrant’s report had half an eye on making use of the site for housing, too: “There are opportunities to reconfigure the ground floor, and to release at least half the building space”.
In Purley, the consultants appear to think that by characterising the library as being “located… at some distance from the district shopping area”, that is excuse enough to move the library and flog off its prime town centre site.
The disingenuous “at some distance” consultants’ description is misleading. The library is actually just a couple of minutes’ walk from the shops, albeit with pedestrians having to navigate the crossings of the busy Purley Cross road system.
Red Quadrant’s report authors say that, “There could be an opportunity to move elsewhere. Within the current building there is the opportunity to rearrange, releasing space for potential space sharing and colocation, and a need to make minor improvements to the building.”
Probably the library under greatest threat of being sold is under-utilised Sanderstead. “We recommend exploring opportunities to relocate elsewhere,” the consultants smarm.
They are equally blunt over Shirley Library, which they say, “is not ideally located to serve the needs of more deprived communities locally”.
The consultants say of Shirley: “Given the age, layout and condition of the current building we recommend carrying out feasibility of redevelopment on the current site and/or relocation/colocation in order to achieve greater accessibility for more deprived communities in the local area. There are opportunities to consider relocation. If remaining in the current building there is an opportunity to rearrange and perhaps to release space.”
When the then Conservative-run council conducted its own libraries consultation eight years ago, which ultimately led to the disastrous outsourcing deal with Carillion, they too considered library closures and volunteer-operation. All of which were firmly rejected after strong opposition led by Lewis’s predecessor as Croydon culture czar, Timothy Godfrey.
But under the guise of “pragmatisim” and because of “austerity”, Croydon’s Blairite council cabinet is now seriously considering using non-union library volunteers, and all for a saving of less than £70,000 per year – less than one-third of council CEO Jo Negrini’s bloated salary.
The Red Quadrant report categorises as “local libraries” Bradmore Green, Broad Green, Sanderstead and Shirley. “These will provide a basic library function and in some of our options are suitable for partial or full operation by volunteers,” they state.
One experienced professional librarian and campaigner said that the report is, “Just typical Red Quadrant doublespeak, all ‘hubs’ and ‘partnerships with voluntary and community groups’.
“In theory, co-location can work well but it very rarely does because it usually just means shoehorning other slashed services in with libraries, which usually leads to less library space and ‘customer service staff’. It denies unaccompanied access to under-16s and under-18s, and in other areas it has raised serious concerns for older and disabled people and women.
“In any case, getting volunteers to take on key roles or even run libraries is highly problematic and unethical for numerous reasons.”
A Katharine Street source familiar with the dilemma facing the council over library funding thinks that the consultants have made some valid points. “Coulsdon Library is on a huge plot, and is dysfunctional. This could be a real opportunity to have a more flexible space and updated equipment and a better service.
“You can’t ossify a library. Up and down the country, they are invested in and look fantastic. Doesn’t a community deserve a great library experience?”
Helen Pollard, the Town Hall opposition spokesperson on culture and stuff for the opposition Tories, said, “I am disturbed by many of the recommendations in the report, in particular the options to close libraries, or make libraries entirely volunteer-run.”
She is also angry that so much of the report was withheld from her and other councillors for nine months. “The culture of secrecy within the current Labour administration meant that this information was hidden away in a report that nobody got a copy of, and I only got a few minutes before the cabinet meeting started.”
But the Red Quadrant report, which you can read at your leisure by clicking here, has now been adopted by Newman and his Blairite supporters, as council policy.
Expect those Brick by Brick hoardings to go up around at least one of Croydon’s precious public library buildings some time before 2022…
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