CROYDON IN CRISIS: The bankrupt council is spending £1.6m on an untried system that will allow it to reduce staffing hours at our libraries, a decision passed without debate at a Town Hall meeting. Our libraries correspondent, GENE BRODIE, investigates
Croydon’s Labour-run council has tried on three separate occasions to use public “consultations” to give it an excuse to close some of the borough’s 13 public libraries.
This is not just a recent thing, driven by the collapse of the council’s finances in 2020. The first consultation ordered by cabinet member Oliver Lewis involved hiring an expensive firm of consultants to consider the best way of closing libraries and handing over the buildings for money-spinning redevelopments by, in all likelihood, Brick by Brick.
The resulting public outcry saw Tony Newman’s Labour council abandon that scheme very quickly.
But the latest consultation, carried out following the council declaring itself effectively bankrupt in November 2020, attempted to dust-off elements of the property sales plan for public libraries. The public responded again, most saying that they opposed closing libraries. Offered reduced hours as an alternative to outright closures, of course the Croydon public, being reasonable folk, said that would be preferable.
But what is emerging is a set of reduced opening hours which makes the borough’s once-proud library service virtually unavailable to large sections of the borough’s residents – and potentially creating a situation where council officials will be able to justify closures of some branch libraries because they have become so poorly used, conveniently ignoring that is because they are so rarely open…
It is a programme of library closures by stealth. It’s clearly part of a plan from senior council directors, who have found a useful idiot to push it through in Lewis, who is notorious for being ready to please Fisher’s Folly’s top officials. It has all been done with virtually no discussion at council meetings, with cabinet members refusing to discuss the matter, while still spending millions of pounds of council funds that were intended to be used to improve the borough’s infrastructure and public amenities.
In their report to the streets, homes and environment scrutiny committee on March 16 last year, lead officers Heather Cheesbrough, she of the dubiously non-existent qualifications, and Steve Dennington – both from the planning department – confirmed that in 2019-2020, £1,607,000 of the borough’s CIL, or Community Infrastructure Levy, was spent on “the library buildings”.
The expenditure was to “Ensure buildings are efficient and fit for purpose and provide attractive, accessible, modern, flexible community spaces that are both professional and welcoming and make the best use of space for the council and their communities.”
At the meeting of full council on October 11 last year, the “reduced hours” option offered in the council’s latest libraries consultation, apparently favoured by around 55 per cent of those that took part in the process, was voted through without discussion.
The consultation had shown that residents want access to libraries at different times to those currently offered, including evenings and Sundays. What is being offered instead is access to unstaffed libraries.
Key to the cash-strapped council’s money-saving solution is the use of what is known as Open+ technology. It’s something that they have been trying to foist on the borough’s unsuspecting library users for some time.
In August 2019, Lewis announced that Open+ technology would be trialled at Selsdon Library and that, if successful, it could be rolled out to other libraries in the borough.
That promised trial has never taken place.
Yet during scrutiny and overview committee on March 30 last year, Lewis said, “We have [Open+] at Selsdon and Norbury… if we were going to roll that out into other libraries, it would require additional capital investment.”
But according to a report to the May 17 council cabinet meeting, £650,000 had been allocated (as agreed at the full council meeting held in March 2021) for just this purpose at three other libraries, as well as replacing “obsolete self-service kiosks”.
By the time that the council’s latest consultation had begun then, Open+ was – if Lewis is to be believed – already installed in Selsdon and Norbury libraries, while funding was in place for its installation at Purley, South Norwood and Thornton Heath.
We now know that this further funding had come from the council’s favourite magic money tree, the CIL pot.
What remains unclear is why further funding was allocated at that particular time, for the installation of Open+ in a those particular libraries, when no risk assessments or trials had been undertaken, and before the public consultation had been completed.
Lewis and the council cabinet and then a meeting of full council have now approved, with little or no debate, a proposal that 150 hours per week of untrialled Open+ technology will be used to provide one-third of the new, much-reduced libraries service hours.
Under these Lewis-backed measures, the jobs of more frontline library staff – already much reduced since 2020 – are at risk. Access to trained and experienced libraries staff will be almost halved, to be replaced (and only partly) by access to libraries by pin number, while library users are monitored only by CCTV.
Do residents really want this type of service and will it really be, or feel safe, to use?
Lewis popped up in a libraries webinar last June, fulll of assurances. “We take safety and our users feeling comfortable in our libraries very seriously,” he smarmed.
“I want to be clear that if we were to move forward with Open+ in our libraries we would be monitoring the libraries with CCTV, and if there was an incident, suitable resources, like the police, would be immediately called. I can’t be clearer than that.” So that’s all right then.
Effectively, Lewis wants to hand over the management of the public libraries in Croydon for one-third of the time to the Met.
The promised trial of Open+ at Selsdon Library, arguably the safest option with Sainsbury’s in the same building, didn’t happen. Covid restrictions are still the excuse being offered for further delay.
A Freedom of Information request was submitted in May 2021 asking for (among other things) the details of any risk assessments carried out. The FoI request has never been fully answered (the council now also uses covid as an excuse for not answering FoI requests in the legally required 20 working days) and there has been nothing forthcoming about any risk assessments.
Then there’s the cost involved. Another FOI request asking for details of the estimated costs associated with the maintenance and management of Open+ (including monitoring CCTV), has so far failed to elicit any sensible answer.
Regular Inside Croydon contributor, Steve Whiteside, wrote to one of Lewis’s cabinet colleagues, Manju Shahul-Hameed, responsible for communities, safety and business recovery, asking that she raise the issues surrounding an implementation of an untrialled Open+. She ignored him.
Whiteside writes, “I wrote to her again prior to a council meeting late last year, asking the same thing.
“I stressed that, ‘there are risks involved in the use of Open+ technology, to customers, staff and property. It is grossly irresponsible of officers or councillors to pretend otherwise’.
“It seemed clear to me that the council was about to do something wrong and I urged her to try to do something to stop that.”
Shahul-Hameed chose again to remain silent.
Lewis no doubt feels that he deserves a hefty pat on the back for “saving the libraries”, but the reality is that his Labour council may have placed more public libraries in jeopardy than anything that the previous Conservative administration ever did with their disastrous outsourcing scheme.
Sanderstead Library, for instance, despite having one of the highest number of issues (of books, yes books!) per hours open, will not have Open+. As a result, Sanderstead’s total operating hours within the new reduced service, would be considerably shorter than the libraries that would have the technology installed.
Without Open+, the libraries at Shirley, Bradmore Green, and Broad Green would have relatively short opening times (just 16 hours per week), while those at Ashburton and Coulsdon would be left with 24 hours of staffed opening hours per week.
Only Central Library will continue to provide anything like full operating hours with proper library staff, open for 40 hours each week, none of its allocated time achieved by using Open+.
At South Norwood, 30 of that library’s 46 opening hours each week will be with Open+.
Selsdon will be open for 54 hours each week, of which 30 will be by Open+. Norbury, Purley and Thornton Heath libraries will have similar opening hours, with just 24 of the 54 hours being staffed.
These drastic cutbacks to library staffing and service levels have been taken under a Labour council administration. Whiteside suggests that the funding of Open+ installations was “both premature and unjustified”.
“Fast forward a few years to a comparative survey of footfall and book issues in libraries when the closure of libraries is next raised,” Whiteside warns, “and it becomes worryingly clear which of our libraries are most likely to be targeted again.”
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