The story of South Norwood Library is just the latest example of how thoroughly screwed-up and costly the council’s relationship with its loss-making house-builders has become.
GENE BRODIE, our bookish gyms correspondent, reports
This could only happen in Croydon. The council has announced that it is to close a library which it has not yet opened.
South Norwood Library was supposed to transfer to swanky new premises on Station Road more than a year ago.
The building was part of a project undertaken by Brick by Brick, the council’s loss-making house-builders. So it comes as little surprise that it has made its own multi-million-pound contribution to the financial collapse of the council, which has now caused Town Hall bosses to propose the closure of five of the borough’s public libraries in its efforts to balance the books – including the as-yet-unopened new South Norwood Library.
Had the transfer of land and property between the council and Brick by Brick at South Norwood worked, it could have been a template for similar deals around the borough, where less-well-used libraries would have been given over for a composite redevelopment involving flats and civic amenities. In South Norwood, the old, 1970s-built brutalist library on Lawrence Road was to have been emptied of its books and PCs and either re-purposed (the nearby Samuel Coleridge Taylor Centre might have moved in) or the site flogged off.
Inevitably, given that the blundering Brick by Brick was involved, the South Norwood scheme hit delays, cost over-runs and serious construction problems. There is, as was discussed at a community meeting in the summer that was attended by councillors Paul Scott and Patsy Cummings, serious issues with sewage piping that have never been resolved.
It all leaves the Croydon public with an empty library building, one which now may never be used.
The council acquired the site, a disused bit of waste ground close to Norwood Junction Station, for £500,000 in 2013.
The Station Road site is one of six which the council later sold on to Brick by Brick for just £1. All the profits from the development, the public were told, would be returned to the council to pay for council homes and services. Trouble was, no one factored in the serial incompetence at Brick by Brick.
What Brick by Brick decided to call “Pump House”, because of its non-existent associations with the pumping station off Surrey Street, miles away in Croydon town centre, comes with 14 one- and two-bed flats perched on top of the library. There was to be no social housing.
According to a cosy puff piece placed with the ever-supportive Architects Journal as recently as September this year, the building and the flats’ interiors were all designed by Common Ground Architecture, Brick by Brick’s in-house architects’ practice.
“The site of Pump House had lain vacant for a generation and along with the completed public realm works by Croydon Council has really transformed the feel of the street,” Chloe Phelps, the deputy CEO at Brick by Brick, told Architects Journal.
The 14 flats, all available for sale with Help to Buy, were priced at a cool £295,000 upwards each. That would suggest total market value of a little more than £4million.
Trouble is, according to the same Architects’ Journal article, the construction costs were at least £3.8million. That doesn’t leave very much margin or profit for the people of Croydon, even if everything went to plan and on budget.
Which, this being Brick by Brick, it has not. Given the half-a-million-pound discount on the land price, Croydon’s bankrupt council may end up losing even more money on this scheme.
Brick by Brick’s website lists all the flats as “reserved”.
Yet all of them today remain unoccupied, perhaps unsold. No one would really want to buy a “luxury executive apartment” if it has sewage problems, after all.
“The build remains incomplete,” said a source who attended the community meeting in July which raised the issues around the site.
“The council was pursuing the contractors to get it finished. But now that the council has gone bust, it doesn’t look like that is going to happen.”
How library closures were already planned
The blundering and wanton waste exhibited by Brick by Brick at South Norwood has seen the bankrupt council place the new building on a list of five of the borough’s public libraries earmarked for closure, in an effort to plug the £66million hole in its budget.
The others being considered for closure are Broad Green, Bradmore Green (in Old Coulsdon), Sanderstead and Shirley, with a public consultation over the proposals expected in the New Year.
The thing is, the Labour-run council has been wanting to close down a handful of libraries for more than two years now.
In September 2018, consultants Red Quadrant handed over a report commissioned by the council which recommended four libraries as suitable for relocation or redevelopment as part of money-spinning property deals. Sanderstead and Shirley were on that list for closure, too.
“We are absolutely looking at how we can get the best value from our libraries portfolio,” Ollie Lewis, the Labour cabinet member for closing libraries and shit, told a council meeting in December 2018, managing to sound more like an estate agent than a champion of culture for Croydon.
By law, local councils have to provide a public library service. What is less clear is whether, to fulfil that legal requirement, a borough the size of Croydon needs 13 libraries. Or seven. Or nine.
Today, Croydon has 13. But for the past decade, our elected councillors, red and blue, have struggled to find a way to pay for all of them. Back in 2011, Croydon’s Tories seriously considered a scheme to close six libraries and to outsource the trimmed down service (to a company best known for its work in the construction industry, naturally). They were, at least in part, thwarted.
But now it appears that Croydon Labour are about to achieve library closures that eluded the Conservatives.
The 2018 Red Quadrant report suggested that with closures and the use of more library volunteers in place of professional and unionised staff, savings of £350,000 per year might be achieved.
Last week, Lewis dusted off that plan. “The following factors have been taken into account in our decision-making,” he told a council meeting. “Things like footfall, book issues, PC sessions, geography, cost of repairs and maintenance.
“On that basis we will be going out on consultation on the closure or alternative cost-neutral models of operation of five libraries.”
Some Katharine Street observers suspect that one or two of the libraries on Lewis’s list are false leads – included in order to appear that the burden of the borough’s bankruptcy is being spread evenly, but that they will escape the death sentence after the consultation is completed and the numbers crunched (and no doubt “tweaked” to suit the desired outcome).
South Norwood and Broad Green are both in Labour-held wards. Shirley is in Labour MP Sarah Jones’s Croydon Central constituency. The politics of closing libraries never plays well with incumbent MPs or councillors.
It is only nine years since Labour councillors were taking to the streets to protest against the proposed closure of South Norwood Library. One of those featured in their (deeply dull and poorly recorded) campaign video was Jane Avis, who remains a councillor for South Norwood today, and is also a member of the cabinet that has approved the library closure proposals.
“The only way I’d put South Norwood and Broad Green into a consultation would be to take them out when closures of Bradmore Green and Sanderstead were agreed,” a Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon today.
“Bradmore Green might anyway win a Judicial Review because of the location in Old Coulsdon. Sanderstead is a duplicate service with Selsdon, though, and would be an easy closure.”
Yet such theorising fails to take into account the seriousness of the council’s financial plight, and the real need to make cuts to services, even statutory ones. “Consultations buy some time for alternatives to be considered and improvements made,” another Town Hall source said.
“Sadly, there’s no escaping the fact that large cuts will have a serious impact and that there are inevitable trade-offs. Saving a library might mean something else having to be cut.”
Which brings us back to Brick by Brick and its absolute failure to deliver on any of its promises – whether it be “much-needed housing”, a properly refurbished Fairfield Halls, or profits to help pay to run the council’s services. The closure of a library that has never been opened somehow sums up the hubris and incompetence that brought Croydon to where it is today.
When the council issued its Section 114 notice last month, admitting it was broke, the budget shortfall included £36million which had been expected to be received this year from Brick by Brick. Even at a council meeting last night, Lisa Taylor, the council’s chief finance officer, was unable to say whether the council will see a penny of that Brick by Brick money.
In 2023, Croydon is to be London’s Borough of Culture.
And that, according to “Shit Show” Lewis, is, “Something we can be proud of. Something to look forward to.”
There is to be a protest staged outside the unopened South Norwood Library building this Saturday, December 5, from 11am. “Join us to protest the proposed closure of South Norwood Library,” say the organisers. “We’ll hold a 15-minute protest (to comply with covid rules) and then hand out flyers and ask people to sign the petition.”
The organisers ask attendees to observe coronavirus precautions, including bringing masks and gloves. “This is going to be a socially distanced event.” You can see the petition online by clicking here.
It seems most unlikely that the protestors will be joined by the Labour councillors for South Norwood or nearby Woodside ward, who include Avis, Cummings – the deputy cabinet member for finance – as well as the discredited former leader Tony Newman and Paul Scott.
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