Council’s misleading Open+ and shut case for public libraries

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

Under threat: Shirley Library is one of the branches which consultants suggested could be axed

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.

Shitshow: cabinet member for closing libraries Oliver Lewis

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.

Promises, promises: Open+’s remote system simply pretends libraries can operate without staff

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.

Open all hours: the promised Open+ trial at Selsdon Library never happened

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.

Library card: the council plans for Open+ access rely on our libraries having CCTV monitored

“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’.

Ignored request to act: Manju Shahul-Hameed

“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.”

Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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5 Responses to Council’s misleading Open+ and shut case for public libraries

  1. Lewis White says:

    Hello Fire Brigade ?.
    It’s Croydon Council Libraries premises security issues resolution centre here !

    Just looking at the CCTV system. There seems to be someone setting light to a pile of books and newspapers in …… Library. Oh, the flames are just going up the curtains and shelves! Ooh, and up to the roof ! I wonder, do you have a fire engine free and fire fighters who could pop round ?. Thanks, that’s so kind…. and would you be able to call the Police to tell them as well ?

    I can tell them the name of the person because the automatic door opening card reads their name— it’s a man….. Mr. R. Sonnist. Hope that’s of help!

    Thanks so much !

  2. Marzia Nicodemi says:

    What else is needed in Croydon for the residents to reject the incumbent administration in toto? Their arrogant incompetence knows no bounds. Nobody was ever held to account and some will resurrect if we get a Labour Mayor in May 2022 as orders from above will be obeyed.

  3. Billy James says:

    Croydon Council could save themselves tens of millions of pounds to staff these vital services by simply monitoring the work of the contractors they employ and refuse to pay until the work is undertaken satisfactorily and refusing to pay until the job is rectified to the standard required.
    Recently near me they have repainted the parking bays to a woefully terrible standard it looks like the individual must have beenin the pub until the early hours of the morning having downed 20 beers.
    My daughter and her class in primary school would be able to paint straighter lines and certainly be cheaper than the Croydon contractors

  4. Once it was convenient to go to Shirley Library, pre-Covid. The two library staff were constantly being consulted, resolving problems etc. There were reading groups and childrens groups. Many of the computer users were from an ethnic background. I imagine that we have lost all that, as our council finds ways of wasting money and serving themselves, and not residents.

  5. Lewis White says:

    I was just wondering what it would feel like to let yourself into an unstaffed library.

    Would it be spookily empty, or would there be other people in there? If so, what would they be like ? A very weird experience, in all likelihood. I can’t imagine that anyone of any age or gender would like to enter a space like a library without the guaranteed safety of a live staffing presence, even if there were a TV screen allowing face to face contact with a staff member at another library, and loads of CCTV cameras playing on every area of the library.

    I wonder how much the cost of installing and above all, maintaining an automatic door system would add up to. Electronic / mechanical entry sytems are really good at doing one thing well- that is, failing. Very quickly, and very often.

    Surely, for safety of users, there would have to be a member of the library service constantly sitting at a terminal monitoring every library at all times. They would be unable to do anything else. That will cost money.

    What if someone got in and decided to stay there? A security team would have to be sent to the library–at what cost?

    Saving money in council situations usually costs money— and sometimes, the cost of doing so will end up far higher than the target “cost saving”.

    My guess is that this could well be such a case.

    Libraries should be peopled places of warmth, fun, relaxation, study and safety, not empty / anxious / unsafe , joyless places .

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