Having created a threat to close five of the borough’s public libraries, the witless Labour administration is now trying to claim the credit for ‘saving’ them. By STEVEN DOWNES
For the second time in just two years, hapless Ollie Lewis, the Labour council’s cabinet member for culture and shit, has been forced into a climbdown over the redevelopment of library sites.
The threat of action by library campaigners over Croydon’s “unlawful” consultation will also have played a role in the abandonment (for now, at least) of plans to close five of the borough’s 13 public libraries.
Finding £900,000 from developers, stashed away in the the Community Infrastructure Levy, has also allowed Lewis and the cash-strapped council’s Labour administration to pose around for virtue-signalling selfies claiming the credit for “saving” South Norwood Library, after they had created the existential threat – thanks, once again, to bungling by the council’s loss-making builders Brick by Brick.
So while the immediate future of the public libraries at Bradmore Green, Shirley, Sanderstead, Broad Green and South Norwood has been assured (for now, or at least until the other side of the 2022 local elections), there will be cost-cutting measures coming down the track which could reduce the service at libraries across the borough. With 21 per cent reductions in opening hours proposed to deliver the required savings, most of Croydon’s libraries could be open for two days fewer each week.
Lewis had been over-promoted under Tony Newman’s discredited regime to the role of head prefect at the Town Hall. It was Lewis who was in charge of culture at the time of the over-budget, behind-schedule refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls which has now cost Croydon Council an extra £69million.
Always eager to please his pay-master, in 2018 Lewis commissioned a consultants’ report that recommended reducing the number of libraries in the borough, potentially handing the sites over to the council’s in-house construction firm to build some lucrative, over-priced “luxury apartments”.
When that secret consultants’ report was made public in 2019, Lewis was forced to rush out a statement, clearly panicked by the hostile reaction and backing down from the scheme.
Then, the proposed operational savings – the running costs of the closed libraries – was a modest £350,000 per year.
When the council nosedived into its financial collapse last year, Lewis was quick to dust-off those closure plans, and tagged on one extra library closure for good measure – Brick by Brick had botched its build of a library with flats on top in South Norwood, where it would cost nearly £1million just to fit-out the building to serve its designated purpose. According to Lewis just four months ago, the council was completely potless and could not afford to finish off the job.
The total savings in annual operations costs by closing five libraries under Lewis’s revised plan was little more than £500,000 – at a council mired in debts of £1.5billion.
The flaws in Lewis’s plans were obvious and many, and when The Library Campaign came after Croydon Council citing Supreme Court legal precedents, it was not long before a climbdown was inevitable.
“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),” the campaigners warned in March.
The consultation was also widely criticised for being staged during the coronavirus lockdown, without any possibility of public meetings to debate the proposals – while also preventing community groups to meet to galvanise opposition.
And so, in a report to this week’s cabinet meeting, new proposals were announced, including reduced opening hours or even the possibility of outsourcing the library service – demonstrating that Blairite Lewis has learned nothing from Croydon Tories’ previous shabby attempt to off-load public libraries to the private sector.
Resorting to volunteers to replace professional library staff also remains a possibility.
Shamelessly, the council announced last night that they were dropping their flawed closure plan after the dodgy consultation because of “local feedback highlighting the importance of local libraries and requesting more access to them out of hours”.
There will now be yet another consultation next month, “on detailed proposals based around three options”.
The council says, “Option 1 would mean all libraries remain in council control and be open two fewer days per week, except the Central Library that would open five days per week. Under Option 2, the council would work in partnership with an organisation to run all 13 libraries, which could include a charity or social enterprise.
“Option 3 would keep eight libraries in council control and open two fewer days a week. The other five would be leased to community groups, with the council providing some staff two days a week, as well as books and IT support.”
The untrusted council says that, in the last couple of months since it issued its libraries closure plan, “it has identified funding to meet these five libraries’ repair costs”.
It said, “This money, from the ring-fenced Community Infrastructure Levy which councils can charge to limit the impact of new developments, would also cover the fit-out costs of the new South Norwood Library and give more users out-of-hours access through Open + swipe cards.”
Significantly, the council admitted that it had abandoned the closure of five libraries because the measure “would not have met the savings needed”.
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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