Oliver “Shit Show” Lewis, the councillor with responsibility for the borough’s culture, has had a second set of money-saving proposals for Croydon libraries mostly rejected, and so will preside over the council’s statutory service now being provided on just three days a week.
The outcome of Lewis’s latest library consultation – the second so far in 2021 – was rubber-stamped at the cash-strapped council’s cabinet meeting on Monday, when a 21 per cent reduction in public library opening hours (and with it, more librarian jobs being cut) was approved.
Offered the Sophie’s Choice alternatives of outsourcing or volunteer-run libraries, 56 per cent of consultation respondents opted for reduced opening hours.
The council is struggling to balance its budgets, after over-spending last year by more than £60million. The library cuts will save around £500,000 per year.
Lewis is one of “Newman’s numpties” who has retained cabinet responsibilities despite the mismanagement on his watch over the past few years, including the £70million “fiasco” of the refurbishment Fairfield Halls. It is to make up for massive cost over-runs such as at the Fairfield Halls that other services, including libraries, are now being cut to the bone.
Lewis has tried before, first in 2018 and then this year, to sell-off some of the borough’s branch libraries.
Opening 12 of the borough’s 13 libraries for only three days a week (Central Library will escape the worst of the cut-backs) is, at least, a better outcome than some of officer-led Lewis’s other eager suggestions for saving money at the bankrupt borough – such as closing five branch libraries and flogging off the sites for development, outsourcing the libraries again, or handing over a handful of branches to eager volunteers and allow them to take over from professional librarians.
Short-term working now does at least leave open the possibility for the borough’s once-proud public libraries to return to five-day-a-week operation, though that may be some way off, since over the last decade, both Labour and Tories have tried to flog off branches to reduce operation costs.
The cuts will, nonetheless, be another hard-felt blow to a service that has been badly eroded.
“Further cuts will have a devastating effect on the service that can be delivered,” library campaigners said.
“Reduced opening hours will have a detrimental effect on people needing the service for internet access, employment, well-being, education, study, research and more.”
The public’s firm rejection of Lewis’s other money-saving wheezes (70 per cent of respondents to the council consultation “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” with a return to outsourcing; 58 per cent opposed volunteer-run libraries) will not offer much cheer to the bean-counters at Fisher’s Folly, though.
This is the third 2021 public consultation on service cuts (the other one was on children’s centres), and the third one where the Croydon public rejected closures and sell-offs – which are clearly the preferred options among senior council officials who are under pressure from Whitehall to plug the blackhole in the council budgets created by Brick by Brick and other mismanaged projects under Lewis’s former mentor, Tony Newman, the discredited former council leader.
According to the council, under the proposals agreed by Lewis’s Labour cabinet colleagues, “Central library would open five days a week, with the other 12 opening up to two days fewer per week depending on their size and visitor numbers.
“The final new opening times would be subject to further engagement with library users, with changes due to come into effect from early 2022.”
Community Infrastructure Levy cash (paid by developers granted planning permission), will be used to “upgrade” library buildings at Bradmore Green, Shirley, Sanderstead, Broad Green and South Norwood – in the latter case, providing around £1million to fit out a new building that was left incomplete in a Brick by Brick development.
The council is also experimenting with a self-service swipe cards system called Open+, even though a trial of the system, at Selsdon, has never gone ahead, the equipment installed having been left standing idle.
Open+, library campaigners say, “is fraught with issues and will exclude access to young people under 16 and others”.
In the press release from the council’s propaganda bunker, Lewis was quoted as saying “a comprehensive service where we keep all libraries open and run in-house, and make significant investments in the buildings themselves”.
But library campaigners have heard these kinds of empty promises before.
“These cuts will have a devastating impact on a well-used and much-loved public service,” campaigners say. “The pittance the council needs to save could be found elsewhere and all the while more money is wasted on Brick by Brick and the calamity that is the Fairfield Halls refurbishment.”
Croydon is “London’s Borough of Culture 2023”.
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