Library closures

Written evidence submitted by the Local Government Association

(LIB 130)


The Local Government Association is here to support, promote and improve local government.

Local government is facing the most radical changes, as well as the most significant opportunities, in a decade.

We will fight local government’s corner and support local authorities through challenging times by focusing on our top two priorities:

· representing and advocating for local government and making the case for greater devolution

· helping local authorities tackle their challenges and take advantage of new opportunities to deliver better value for money services.

Key messages

· Local authorities are facing unprecedented budget challenges. Despite this councils are demonstrating great innovation and resilience to provide improved library services which meet their communities’ changing needs, whilst achieving value for money.

· Libraries are a local service and there is no single definition of a comprehensive and efficient service. Modernisation and diversification are essential for them to thrive. Libraries play important roles as meeting places; in developing learning; giving access to the internet; supporting literacy [1] , and providing information to local residents on issues such as public health and finding jobs.

· Local authorities do not take decisions to close libraries lightly as they understand that library closures have a significant impact on communities. Planned library closures which take into account the best solution to meet local needs are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report.

· However, the 1964 Act is outdated and stifles modernisation. We are calling for the updating of this Act as sector led improvement and local accountability through the ballot box are sufficient to ensure better local libraries.


1. In the current Spending Review period councils have had their funding cut by 28%. They have borne the brunt of the funding cuts in a disciplined manner balancing the needs of the economy against a maintenance of vital local services. No council or council service is immune from these cuts and councils face the prospect of further reductions in future.

2. The public library service in England is a local service. It is mainly owned, resourced and delivered by local councils who spend over a billion pounds a year doing so. It provides an essential part of democracy. With a cross generational footfall that other local authority services can only dream of, libraries play a fundamental role in being a gateway to information across the board, from public health to adult learning, to employment and the police to other cultural services.

3. The current financial climate gives a new urgency to the drive to get better value from public services. Some councils have responded by giving communities a bigger role in running libraries, which brings challenges around capacity and provision, as well as opportunities.

4. Councils have shown that the best way to modernise services in tough financial times is by being innovative in developing and modernising their library services. The Future Libraries Programme (FLP) was launched in 2010 by LGA alongside the now dis-banded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. We worked with 36 councils helping them develop their library services. Followed by the Libraries Development Initiative (LDI) launched this year in partnership with Arts Council England (ACE) with the aim of stimulating creativity and sharing learning in the development of library services. The LDI received over 100 expressions of interest from councils and other organisations keen to improve their library services. In addition, LGA will continue to support all local councils through a sector led approach by sharing emerging tools and good practice.

Comprehensive and efficient library service

5. It is impossible to identify a single nationwide definition about what constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service. The library service is a local service and will therefore vary depending on the changing characteristics and requirements of local communities. What may be a comprehensive and efficient library service for a rural area will not be the same as an inner city area; what may be comprehensive and efficient for an area with an ageing population will not be the same as an area with a large population of young people. Strong local political leadership ensures local library services address the needs of local communities.

6. Learning from the Future Libraries Programme (FLP) and beyond has established an extensive pool of good practice in needs assessment and different delivery models. This work cannot provide off the shelf solutions but can support local decision makers to robustly identify local needs and delivery options which will best meet those needs.

7. Emerging from the FLP were four models of reform: service location and distribution, new provider models, shared services across council boundaries, and empowering communities to do things their way. [1]

Library closures

8. Local authorities understand that library closures and service reduction have a significant impact on local communities and they do not take these decisions lightly. However, as a result of significant budget cuts, some councils have no option but to close some of their libraries. This is underpinned by robust consultation where local people’s needs are identified and all relevant factors such as efficiency and usage of buildings are considered. Councils understand that in order to maintain a successful future for libraries it is important that they listen to and reflect the changing needs of the various parts of the local community they serve.

9. However, closure of a library does not automatically mean a decrease in access to library services; with the exploration of on line and community delivery models, it can mean accessing services in a different way. Other councils have decided to re-design their library services; and some have added to their portfolio of libraries.

10. The diverse range of responses across the country to budget pressures further highlights the diversity of local needs and why it is impossible to create a one size fits all definition of a comprehensive and efficient library service.

11. Arts Council England’s wider responsibilities offer a significant opportunity for a single over-arching conversation between ACE and local government to explore the strategic opportunities across all cultural assets in a local area.

Libraries and Museums Act 1964

12. Planned library closures which take into account the best solution to meet local needs are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report. Judgements in the cases of Gloucestershire County Council, Somerset County Council and London Borough of Brent, as well as the Charteris Report, did not say that there was anything inherently wrong with library closures. They stressed that in order for re-design to be lawful, councils must carry out a full and proper consultation and comply with their public sector equality duties. In the Brent case, Lord Justice Pill said "Given the scale of the spending reductions the council was required to make, and the information available following earlier studies, a decision that the library service should bear a share of the reduction was not, in my judgment, unlawful."

13. If local people disagree with changes to libraries provision, after having been engaged in the decision making process, then we believe recourse should be through the ballot box in local elections instead of the courts.

14. We believe that in order to increase councils’ ability to respond to local needs the Libraries Act of 1964 must be updated. Section 7 of the Act describes a service the principal function of which is the borrowing of books, instead of the provision of powerful information and providing an environment for learning. We live in an increasingly digital age with changed expectations, for example the Act refers to "gramophone records" in place of the internet.

15. The Government has removed much burdensome top down performance management and powers over local authorities. However, the Libraries and Museums Act 1964 still stands, in stark contrast to the principles of this Government’s localist agenda.

16. The present Act is a barrier to library reform. The stagnant superintendent role of the Secretary of State is ineffective in allowing library services to change in line with the changing needs and expectations of local people. The library service is fundamentally a local service and should be led by local leadership, being locally accountable. Putting central government in a position to "superintend" and intervene over the service can only confuse accountability for outcomes and increase bureaucracy.

17. Councils’ focus should be on meeting local needs not working to an archaic piece of legislation. Central government should be a strategic leader not superintendent, allowing a sector-led approach to deliver better services whilst achieving value for money.

18. We agree that there should be a statutory duty on councils to provide an excellent library service, but this must be flexible. As such we would like to see the Libraries Act amended to allow councils to be creative in responding to the needs of their local areas. A modern Libraries Act without the superintendent role of central government would give councillors the scope to re-design their library services to meet local people’s needs.

January 2012

Appendix 1

Good practice and innovative case studies

Bradford Metropolitan District Council – local service points in retail stores to extend access

Bradford Council is working with communities to help remodel its library service to provide major libraries in key centres across the district supported by a network of sustainable local service points called "Library Links". Potentially many of these library link points will be located in shared outlets with extended opening times in partnership with a retail partner. A joint approach with a retail partner has the potential to relocate libraries into stores with excess space, redevelop existing library sites to incorporate new library facilities attached to retail stores and new developments of joint library/retail facilities. The council have worked with the local community to determine local needs from these alternative service points. This programme will enable Bradford to develop a remodelled and sustainable library service delivered though innovative partnership working and using a joint approach which is effective and efficient for both parties.

London Borough of Lewisham – community libraries: a social enterprise model

Eco Computer Systems (ECS) run a multi-use community library service in three buildings in Lewisham. Lewisham council are responsible for stock and have recently installed self issue facilities. ECS leases the buildings from the council and staffs the libraries with a part time community hub manager and volunteers. This has seen the council make an annual saving of around £800,000 on staff costs. The multi-purpose centres provide book loans, free internet access, free training courses and a wide range of other local services. ECS raise income to help run the library through operating a social enterprise model; raising funds through recycling IT equipment, running training courses and hiring out training rooms, running a café and selling donated books online through Amazon. These innovative income generating streams have so far been very successful and they have future ideas to install a café in each library and to expand activities, for example by running a pop-up cinema and taster poetry sessions.

City of Westminster, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea - Tri-borough partnership working

Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Councils in April 2012 will be launching an integrated libraries and archives service managed as a single service across the three boroughs, with local branding and delivery in line with local community needs. This will ensure savings of more than £1 million a year from reducing management and support costs by having an integrated structure and from introducing best practice in operational staff deployment. It will also ensure all of their 21 public libraries stay safe from closure. Once fully implemented, it will mean residents will gain access to around 1 million books, hundreds of entertainment and cultural events and scores of weekly skills and education classes. Each council has also agreed a new political mandate for its library service setting out its aspirations and priorities. These signal a very positive future for the service, alongside delivery of efficiency savings not achievable individually.

London Borough of Hillingdon – increased footfall through innovative re-design

London Borough of Hillingdon are just over half way through a four-million pound programme to rebuild or refurbish all 17 of its libraries within six years. Innovative ideas, such as locating libraries alongside leisure centres and installing Starbucks coffee facilities where all profits go back into funding new books for residents and other initiatives, have helped encourage more visitors through the doors. The latest books, new Apple Mac computers, free online access and WiFi as well as regular events and literary festivals are encouraging more visitors through the doors. Overall there has been a 50 per cent rise in visitor numbers across all the revamped libraries.

Staffordshire County Council – digitisation and e-books

Staffordshire County Council is making e-books available to all library members. More than 1,000 titles can be borrowed, free of charge, for three weeks for use on book reading devices like iPhones, book readers or iPads. The download ‘expires’ after the loan period ends and, like traditional books, they can only be borrowed by one library user at a time. They have also recently rolled out Wifi access at all its main libraries. They hope ensuring their libraries are at the forefront of new technology will give people a new way to read and bring in people who may have not used the library service before.

Herefordshire and Shropshire Councils – modernising library services in rural areas

Herefordshire and Shropshire councils face many similar challenges not least delivering services to sparse population in highly rural areas, but also a number of opportunities to create modern and effective library services. Therefore, Herefordshire and Shropshire are looking together at new partnership models for service delivery at individual library level. The programme will look at a range of delivery and management options that will shape sustainable services, including the options of charitable trust status and community run libraries. This project will ensure the needs of predominately rural counties are met by building on the innovation and best practice already found in both authorities.

In Herefordshire a number of community libraries are being set up, largely staffed by volunteers and the number of people receiving books in Herefordshire through the home delivery service has almost doubled. Shropshire Council are working with partners on the management and delivery options for two libraries which are located in shared buildings. Other libraries are included in the council's programme for service hubs which will co-locate a number of council services and external organisations. Discussions are also taking place between the authorities around best practice in a number of areas of work, sharing back office and specialist functions and the introduction of new digital front-line and support services.

[1] A recent study by National Literacy Trust showed almost four million children do not own a book.

[1] LGA and MLA’s 2011 publication “ Future libraries - Change, options and how to get there” explains these models in more detail.

Prepared 6th February 2012