Monday, 7 December 2009

Wirral - a costly victory

Elspeth Hyams in her Library & Information Update blog predicted that Wirral (i.e. the Council) would "wriggle with embarrassment" when they read Sue Charteris' report on the proposed library closures. Elspeth cannot be very familiar with the sort of people who run northern metropolitan councils if she thinks that wriggling or embarrassment are things that come easily to them.
The response from Steve Foulkes, leader of Wirral MDC to the decision of the enquiry was blunt:

"I want to do some very straight talking here. I know a lot of people won’t want to hear what I have to say, but I believe it needs to be said… I am disappointed not because it is critical of the decision, but because it is fundamentally flawed in its logic, and in many places it is just plain wrong."

Cllr Foulkes' first point is that if Wirral were to be in breach of its statutory duty then so would any number of other local authorities. It is undoubtedly true that other authorities have made or are planning cuts in library services at a similar level but have simply not triggered the review process that resulted in the Wirral report. We can argue that that is a condemnation of those other authorities rather than a justification for Wirral's actions but it does suggest that the lesson that will be drawn is not "don't cut libraries" but rather "don't get caught cutting too many libraries at one go".

Cllr Foulkes then argues that the report confused theory with reality:
"In theory, we could keep all our libraries open, improve our services and repair our buildings for no additional cost, just by introducing some minor changes like self service systems. In reality, the decision not to close some libraries and invest in Neighbourhood Centres will cost £2.3m next year, which is the equivalent of a 2% increase in Council Tax. Over the next three years we will also need to find another £2.4 million from revenue budgets for major repairs which will mean either increased council tax levels or cuts in services elsewhere."

He continues:
"There are winners and losers in this situation. Those who lobbied to keep their local library open have what they wanted. But the silent majority who do not use their library, who do not want to see their council tax increase, and who might have used one of the new neighbourhood centres because they were more attractive, more conveniently located and open longer hours are definitely the losers".

Given that the main criticism in the report was that Wirral failed to make an assessment of local needs in respect of its Library Services, Cllr Foulkes' claim that he has a special insight into the opinions of the majority should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, we would be naïve to imaging that he is completely wrong. Council leaders don't get to where they are without a fairly good idea of what it is that people (or at least voters) want. The strong expressions of support for libraries that we heard when these cuts were proposed were very gratifying but the fact is that at least as many people don't care that much about libraries or care more for other services and/or cuts in council tax.

Cllr Foulkes then becomes apocalyptic:
"The people of Wirral need to understand very clearly what is coming. Between 2011 and 2014, this Council is going to need to save over £67 million, and that is a minimum estimate. We will have to change or go under.
"If we continue to hang on to what we know, and reject that change, and if the silent majority continues to remain silent, Wirral will become an impoverished backwater with failing services, crumbling buildings and a mass exit of any investors who could help us weather the storm and allow us to become the attractive and prosperous region we deserve to be".

Not much sign of wriggling with embarrassment here! This is strong stuff and to suggest that keeping a few libraries open will cause this much damage is over-the-top. However Cllr Foulkes makes the point that "We can’t just look at one service in isolation from every other service we provide. There is a limited amount of money that has to be shared out to meet a whole host of demands, some of which are literally matters of life or death".

As Council leader it is Foulkes' role to see the big picture. Our role as librarians is to deliver a service within that big picture.

The report by Sue Charteris can be seen as a victory for public libraries as it resulted in Wirral withdrawing its proposals. But if it is a victory, it is one we can ill afford. How can we possibly celebrate the fact that we have won one over on Wirral council and other councils in a similar position? What sort of victory is it that results in a Council leader believing (albeit it with a touch of political hyperbole) that the decision could lead to the impoverishment of his local community?

And this is not just the view of one individual. The Act underpinning this report has been condemned by the Local Government Association as "fit for nothing but the archives" (Nice of them to fit in an insult to archives as well as libraries). The LGA wants councils to be "freed up to make decisions on how best to provide information services to local people without being judged according to laws drawn up half a century ago, before the arrival of the internet and digital media". What is frightening about this is that it makes the LGA sound forward looking while public libraries are relying on the technicalities of ministerial intervention contained in an outmoded act of parliament.

What Cllr Foulkes' rhetoric - and our own response to that - should not mask is that what Sue Charteris' report actually says is 'If you are going to make drastic changes to people's services (1) FIND OUT ABOUT THEM and (2) CONSIDER THE PEOPLE AFFECTED (3) ASK THEM WHAT THEY THINK'. (To quote Elspeth Hyams). This might not be totally comfortable for librarians as the people affected are those who have to pay for the service, and those who might benefit if the money was spent on something else, as well as those who use the service - but this is evidence based librarianship. Of course, as librarians, we should be giving people the information they need to make decisions. Cllr Foulkes' decision was based on the belief that librarians are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Why does he believe that? The strategic goals of Wirral Council are:

  • To create more jobs, achieve a prosperous economy and regenerate Wirral.
  • To create a clean, pleasant, safe and sustainable environment.
  • To improve health and well being for all, ensuring people who require support are full participants in mainstream society.
  • To raise the aspirations of young people.
  • To create an excellent Council.
Did the Head of Libraries for Wirral ever sit down with Cllr Foulkes and go through these points explaining how the libraries can and do help to achieve these goals? Has anyone pointed out to him that libraries could help prevent Wirall from becoming an impoverished backwater? Did anyone provide him with a vision for public libraries in Wirral - a vision that did not rely on the status quo, a vision that took account of the bigger picture, a vision that recognized that the enthusiasm of library users for their own local library building was not the be-all and end-all of the argument?

Perhaps he is not the sort of Council leader that you can sit down with and talk to. Unfortunately there are many in local government who will not listen - and that is why libraries regard the powers of intervention under the 1964 Act as still being of value in the last resort. We must fight for the principle of a free public library service accessible to all, but I pray that we are spared any more victories like this one.

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