CROYDON IN CRISIS: The council’s penny-wise and pound-foolish proposals for library closures could end up costing it more money after a badly-organised consultation, according to a national campaign group.
By STEVEN DOWNES
The council’s latest consultation, over the proposed closure of up to five of the borough’s public libraries, may be unlawful, according to a national campaign group.
The public consultation is set to close tomorrow night, having sought residents’ input on the fate of libraries in Broad Green, South Norwood, Shirley, Sanderstead and at Bradmore Green, in Old Coulsdon.
But The Library Campaign, in its submission to the consultation, has warned Croydon that it may be in breach of established legal precedent for the conduct of such consultations and determining the future of public libraries, which local authorities have a statutory duty to provide.
“Offering citizens nothing but the option to comply. the council are open to challenge under the legally binding Gunning principles (1985 (R (Gunning) v Brent (London Borough Council), endorsed by the Supreme Court in 2014 (R (Moseley) v LB Haringey)” say the campaign,” The Library Campaign states.
“The first two principles are: ‘Consultation must be at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage’; and: ‘The proposer must give sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit of intelligent consideration and response.
“The Supreme Court endorsement further specifies: ‘Fairness may require that consultees are given information on possible alternative plans, even when a council does not favour them, to enable the consultees to make an intelligent response in respect of the scheme on which their views are sought’.”
The closures would save the bankrupt council relatively little in operational and staffing costs, but they could save the borough considerably more on the maintenance costs on the buildings, as well as freeing the sites up for possible money-spinning sales to property developers.
The council’s proposals are an adaptation of a plan that the cabinet member for arts, culture and shit, Oliver Lewis, has been kicking around for almost three years, from a time when the council was looking at redeveloping library buildings by handing them over to Brick by Brick to build flats.
South Norwood was supposed to be the template for that plan – now, that new library could be closed before it is ever opened, the £900,000 bill to fit it out the poorly-finished build too costly for the cash-strapped council.
Selling the five sites to third-party developers, however, under the government-approved asset-disposal plan, could generate a significant amount towards repaying the borough’s debts.
The Library Campaign, however, believes that because of the bungled consultation, Croydon’s plans could be blocked.
In a lengthy submission prepared by chair Laura Swaffield and Andrew Coburn, they state that the Croydon consultation “shows no almost no understanding of libraries or even of the law”, “the projected savings are very small within the council’s overall budget – and are in any case most unlikely to be achieved”.
And they add that, “The social and educational damage from the current plan would be far more expensive than any savings made.”
In South Norwood, residents have started a campaign to demonstrate the need for libraries from those people who depend on their library for access to broadband, computers, printers or photocopiers by sending meticulously drafted, hand-written letters to their Labour councillors.
The Library Campaign describes the council’s proposals in the consultation as “sabotage”.
They say that the council has failed to carry out an Equalities Impact Assessment, as it is legally required to do.
They also suggest that, by conducting a consultation during the coronavirus lockdown, paper versions of the consultation document have not been as widely available as they would need to be to satisfy the council’s legal obligations, “thus excluding large numbers of people and in particular those most likely to need the library”.
And the council has failed to provide the consultation in any community language.
Swaffield and Coburn are also critical of the way the consultation was structured, limiting the options that respondents can say they “value” to just three. Missing from the list of options to be “valued” by the council is… staff, which The Library Campaign states “consistently score very high in all surveys”. Of course, not mentioning professional and trained librarians might be one way that the council could skew the outcome of its consultation towards the volunteer-run “community hubs” it is hoping to be able to foist on to residents – together with the bills for building maintenance.
“This final flaw in the consultation will draw particular criticism, as the council seems to have decided, without consultation, to exclude staff from the five libraries in question,” the Campaign states.
“Local libraries offer much, at a very small price. They are a bargain for any council. Croydon simply cannot afford to lose them, or to dump them on to communities that are ill-equipped to run them.”
And they note, “When Croydon is paying £10million to attempt to salvage Brick by Brick, cutting essential frontline services will not be popular with voters.”
The council consultation, and Lewis, have repeatedly referred to “cost-neutral” option of allowing the volunteers to run their local libraries.
The Library Campaign dismisses this notion entirely. “The council is sadly misinformed if it thinks ‘the community’ is in a position to take over any library service.
“This has already become apparent in the council’s webinars, where invited ‘community-managed’ libraries have consistently said that the workload is enormous, that a fully council-run staffed service is preferable, and that survival depends on considerable council input, including stock, library management system, IT support and partial use of council librarians.
“They are not a ‘cost neutral’ option. They save very little money, if any, and would be a drain on the council’s other library staff at a time when they will be needed more than ever post-lockdown.
We would add that such “community-managed” libraries usually take years to set up, as council officers grapple with the needs of multiple different buildings, and communities with different needs and different resources. In the short term, setting them up adds to the council’s costs.”
Croydon, the council that wants to close libraries, is London’s “Borough of Culture” in 2023.
Read more: Libraries are our long-term investment. Don’t squander it
Read more: South Norwood library needs £900,000 more to be fit to open
Read more: Lip-service webinars fail to consider libraries’ community future
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