CROYDON IN CRISIS: Mounting repair bills has seen the bankrupt council earmark five public libraries for possible closure. But they are not saying how much they might make if they sell the properties.
Our political editor, WALTER CRONXITE, reports
More than three-quarters of a million pounds worth of repair bills, plus nearly £900,000 to kit out an unfinished building, are the reasons being put forward by Croydon’s bankrupt council for its money-saving proposals for permanent closure of five of the borough’s 13 public libraries.
The eye-watering capital costs of maintaining libraries in a state where the buildings do not become a danger to those who use them make the £540,000 annual costs of staffing and operating the five libraries pale into relative insignificance.
Libraries in Sanderstead, Shirley, Broad Green, South Norwood and Bradmore Green are being lined up for possible closure. It is the hugely costly blundering over South Norwood Library, with its replacement part-built by Brick by Brick, which underscores the closure plans, and which makes that library’s fate seem sealed.
Construction of the new library for South Norwood, according to Brick by Brick, has cost £3.8million. Add to that the £500,000 cost to Croydon Council of buying the site, which they later sold on to BxB for just £1.
Now, according to council papers released yesterday with its survey on the future of the borough’s libraries, it could cost at least £889,000 to kit out the building and make it serviceable as a modern library.
The option of keeping the library service in the current building, on Lawrence Road, is not financially attractive, either: the repair bill there is estimated to be at least £438,000 – about four times more than the similar bills for any of the other libraries earmarked for closure.
By law, the council must provide a public library service for its residents. What is less-well-defined is how many library buildings a borough the size of Croydon needs to fulfil its legal obligation.
Under the closure plans, Croydon is hoping to get away with having eight remaining libraries. Though as is clear from the online pubic survey it launched yesterday, it is keeping its options open about possibly handing over one or more of the libraries for volunteers to run.
The phrase that recurs throughout the paperwork is that the council is proposing either closure or that the library is “operated on a cost-neutral basis”.
Library closures tend to be politically toxic for whatever administration implements them, and a ballot-box risk for the local MP, too. The dire situation in Croydon has led to one Labour MP, Sarah Jones, effectively advocating for “community-run libraries”, and the loss of professional librarian jobs, in the hope that she might salvage some votes in Shirley.
Judging by the staffing cost figures provided in the council’s survey released yesterday, between 10 and a dozen librarians could lose their jobs if all five libraries are closed or handed over to community trusts.
Somewhat disingenuously, some might think, no where in the council survey and its accompanying five documents about the libraries under threat (called “factsheets” by the council), is there any mention of the potential development value of the properties involved. In 2018, long before the borough’s finances had hit the rocks, the Labour-run council had engaged consultants to draw up a blueprint for selling off library sites or redeveloping them for flats or other uses.
Certainly, were all five libraries, plus the unfinished new building in South Norwood, flogged off to commercial developers, the council could expect to receive a few million quid to help pay off its £1.5billion debts.
Also missing from the survey is any information whatever on the eight libraries which are not under threat – presumably because the council does not want to provide the communities who are about to be deprived of their local library to be able to compare and contrast the financial merits and user numbers with those that have escaped the axe.
Yesterday, in a statement issued by the council, they said, “In response to the borough’s unprecedented financial deficit, the council has launched an online survey asking residents how they use the libraries service and what their views are on proposals to close five of its 13 library buildings.
“The buildings at Bradmore Green, Shirley, Sanderstead, South Norwood and Broad Green will close unless viable alternative plans are found that cost no public money. These five libraries have expensive long-term maintenance costs and dropping visitor numbers.”
The survey runs until March 7; then there is a formal consultation expected in April and May (ooo, lovely, just before the London elections, when Patsy Cummings, a councillor in South Norwood, will be asking for your votes; Cummings was the council’s deputy cabinet member for… finance). A final cabinet decision expected in the summer.
Solving the equation of how many public libraries are enough, the council says, “Working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the council will ensure it meets the statutory requirement to have a comprehensive and efficient library service.”
Behind this particular council clusterfuck is Oliver Lewis, the cabinet member for libraries and shit, who attracted national notoriety when he doled out thousands of pounds of public money for performance art that included butt plugs and on-stage defecation.
Yesterday, Lewis said, “We intend to keep open at least eight buildings and our wide-ranging digital access but we also face some tough decisions, so I urge anyone with an interest in our libraries to take part in this consultation and help shape the future service.”
To request a paper survey, call 020 7884 5159 or write to Croydon Central Library, Katharine Street, Croydon CR9 1ET, or simply click here.
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