The Labour cabinet member who told the scrutiny committee that he ‘absolutely’ has plans to build more flats on the borough’s public libraries now says the council ‘currently’ has no plans to close libraries. Our bookish gyms correspondent, GENE BRODIE, tries to untangle the blatant contradictions of a political mess of the council’s own making
So that’s all right then. Ollie “Oliver” Lewis, the council cabinet member for butt plugs and shit shows, “currently” has no plans to redevelop any of the borough’s libraries.
Notice the use of that weasel word “currently”. It could all change by next week.
Lewis was forced to rush out his statement this week, clearly panicked by the hostile reaction from across the borough, including from a Labour MP, to a consultants’ report which Lewis himself had commissioned to review the borough’s library provision. The clumsy announcement from Lewis, though, should reassure no one.
As exclusively revealed by Inside Croydon, the report from consultants Red Quadrant recommends closing up to four of Croydon’s 13 public libraries – for savings of up to £355,000 per year – while parachuting in volunteers to reduce the need for professional librarians, or re-locating other libraries and releasing their sites for redevelopment.
“There are… opportunities to consider both the relocation of libraries and a change in the number of libraries provided,” the consultants’ report states. When they say “change”, it is another weasel word usage. There is no suggestion that such change will mean an increase in the number of libraries in Croydon.
“We suggest that the libraries considered for closure should be one or more of the local libraries, with Sanderstead as the least busy and most poorly located as the library selected if the only one to be closed.”
Also on Lewis’s consultants’ hit list of libraries considered suitable for closure are Bradmore Green in Old Coulsdon, Broad Green and Shirley.
The library in Coulsdon town centre was also mentioned for its lucrative potential for “re-location”, one of a number of sites considered to be freed up for potential redevelopment – surely with our crass council’s eye on more flats from Brick by Brick.
The consultants’ report was delivered to Lewis in September last year.
But its dynamite recommendations were kept under lock and key until last month. The brains trust which runs the Labour group at the Town Hall didn’t even think of sharing the consultants’ vote-losing report with Sarah Jones, the Labour MP for Croydon Central. Shirley Library is in Jones’s constituency.
Lewis and his colleagues among Newman’s numpties in the Town Hall cabinet duly voted through a new libraries “strategy”, with their consultants’ report attached.
Jones was clearly very concerned about the implications to her marginal seat, and she was among the first to react, declaring that the recommendation to close Shirley Library should be “ignored”.
Soon after, the MP launched her own online survey into library use, while Chris Philp, the Tory MP for Croydon South, and Mario Creatura, the occasional councillor for Coulsdon Town, later sought to make political capital out of this latest dropped bollock by the Town Hall’s Labour administration, by launching one of their usual data-scraping exercises and an online petition.
The Red Quadrant recommendations are not dissimilar to a previous libraries consultation exercise conducted by the Tories when they were in charge of the council, and which was used as an excuse to outsource the running of the borough’s libraries to a building firm, Carillion. And didn’t that work out well?
But the suggestion that library sites might be flogged off for their land value, or the buildings somehow re-utilised and “co-located” with other council functions, ought to come as no surprise, since Lewis was floating the very same suggestions last year – long after he had been able to read through the Red Quadrant report himself.
Last December, in best Blairite style, Lewis told a council scrutiny committee: “We are absolutely looking at how we can get the best value from our libraries portfolio.” Building on the site of public libraries is exactly what Lewis has in mind.
The practice is already established. The council-owned house-builders Brick by Brick have already got their claws into one library site, in South Norwood, where they are a year overdue in building a much-reduced library to go beneath a clutch of new flats, before moving in on the existing public library site. For even more flats.
Fast-forward to last week, and the political flak caused by Lewis’s mishandling of the consultants’ report forced him into issuing a lengthy “clarification” statement in a forlorn, and belated, attempt to stem the damage he has caused. Significantly, the statement was issued by the Croydon Labour Party, and not from the propaganda department of the council.
“That suggests that the council didn’t want to touch it,” a Katharine Street insider told Inside Croydon. “Bullshit announcements are the council press office’s stock-in-trade, so that’s not the reason they didn’t put it out. The reason is because the consultants’ closure recommendations are at the core of what the council wants to do, and probably will end up doing.”
Lewis’s statement was long on waffle and platitudes, and light on any substantive, up-front statement pledging never to close any of the borough’s libraries. Oh, and as you might expect, some inexactitudes, too.
“I am very proud of our library service,” Lewis said, hardly convincingly, before launching himself into some futile political point-scoring. “When the Tories last ran Croydon council they privatised the service…”
Except that they didn’t. The Tories outsourced the library service, getting a contractor in to do their job, on the cheap and to lower than acceptable standards. It is a practice that was popularised under the Blairites, and it is a practice which Newman’s numpties at the Town Hall continue to use with the borough’s sports and leisure facilities (“privatised”, as Lewis and his council leader would have it, to Greenwich Leisure) and rubbish and street cleaning services (with rubbish contractors Veolia).
“Now the service is back in-house we have a real opportunity to invest in and improve our libraries,” said Lewis.
Lewis recently announced that this level of investment was to take the form of a book fund equipped with only about one-third of the money which was used for the same process 20 years ago.
Lewis is also spending £5million over three years to “upgrade IT and refurbish library buildings”, and he has agreed the welcome move that will see the council rejoin the London Libraries Consortium.
“At our latest cabinet meeting we tabled a report that makes crystal clear the council is committed to keeping 13 libraries open across the borough. We have also committed to improving the service and investing in the library buildings themselves,” Lewis claimed.
It is a reasonable assumption to make that the Labour council has been copping a bit of flak from the trades unions, too, over Lewis’s consultants’ recommendations for de-professionalisation the library service.
In a worryingly illiterate piece of reassurance offered to library staff, Lewis wrote: “Some council’s [sic] have responded to Conservative austerity cuts by cutting Library staff or handing over Library buildings to volunteers. But we know how valued our professional Library service is, which is why we are committed to protecting it.”
And then there were those weasel words again: “As such we have no plans to make any changes to staffing numbers.”
“We have no plans.” Carefully written in the present tense. Meaning that some council functionary in Fisher’s Folly could be crunching the numbers this week for future plans to reduce staffing numbers.
Indeed, in virtually the next sentence, Lewis gives the game away by admitting, “We have committed to increase the number of volunteers that support our libraries service.”
Only at the end of his lengthy statement to party members did Lewis dare to turn to the real issue for issuing it: library closures.
Having backed himself into a corner by keeping the damaging conclusions of the Red Quadrant report a secret for nine months, Lewis now dug himself into a deeper hole (mixed metaphor intended).
“Finally, I have been asked recently whether we are planning to redevelop any of our existing libraries. I can be clear and say that we currently have no plans to redevelop any of our libraries.”
Again, the deception in the former sentence is revealed in the very next paragraph: “A number of our library buildings do require investment to bring them up to modern standards and our officers are working to understand how we could deliver this in the future.”
“To understand how we could deliver this in the future.” Lewis has already spent tens of thousands of pounds of public money on consultants to provide the council with a set of recommendations “to understand how we could deliver this in the future”.
Eventually, Lewis admits what the next stage in the process which would lead to the closure and redevelopment of library sites will be. “As a council we will always look at ways to build on the success of our public services but our policy makes clear that any future redevelopment of our Libraries will require a fresh cabinet decision, along with public consultation and proper scrutiny.”
At no point in his entire thousand words of inadvertent mea culpa does Lewis offer an unequivocal pledge that there will be no library closures under a Labour council.
You have been warned.
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