Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Tim White

I am a retired local government officer (retiring in April 2009). For the last six years of my career I was Director of Regeneration for Middlesbrough Council, and had responsibility in that role for the Council’s library service. I am making this submission in a personal capacity; I want to make it clear that I am not seeking to represent the views of the current Council or indeed of the views of the Council during the time I was one of its employees. However, my submission is informed by the knowledge and experience I gained in that role. I am also a great supporter of the principle of library provision, both personally and professionally. Personally, as I was a great beneficiary of the library service as a child, and professionally in that there is a strong case for excellent library provision particularly in places like Middlesbrough with its high levels of deprivation.

Middlesbrough Council was created as a unitary authority in the 1996 reorganisation, taking over the library service from the disbanded Cleveland County Council. The four new unitaries created from the break-up of Cleveland inherited greatly varying levels of library provision, in terms of the number and distribution of library faclilities (main and branch libraries). Middlesbrough was particularly well endowed with branch libraries. The application of the standard of one mile walking distance produced a map with many multiply-overlapping circles, which was clearly a good thing for library users, but has significant budgetary implications.

There are several reasons for the variation in provision between the four new Councils, but one probable explanation is that Middlesbrough was the seat of administration for Cleveland County Council, and the core of its political powerbase for much of its 22 year existence. Middlesbrough-based councillors were well placed to lobby successfully for new facilities for their wards. I believe that this had an impact on levels of provision of library facilities, and for other community provision eg youth and community centres. In a sense, the reasons are now irrelevant, yet I believe that they may shed some light on the current situation which councils like Middlesbrough face. The same political imperatives which helped lead to current levels of provision make it very difficult for politicians to sanction closures, even when such an approach may be sensible both in budgetary terms, and in terms of preserving a high level of access to local library facilities.

It would be practicably possible to significantly reduce levels of library premises provision in Middlesbrough and thereby secure major budget savings, without reducing levels of access to the library service other than at the margins. However, as my own experience demonstrated, whilst councillors may understand the logic of such a strategy, they are unable to sign up to it politically because of the enormous pressures they would face from their electors. There’s nothing quite like a proposed library closure to galvanise huge local opposition and protest. Most of the protestors haven’t used the libraries they are campaigning to keep open, for years, if at all (one need only look at the membership and useage statistics for confirmation of this). However, they will fight hard to keep them open.

Savings in the library service can of course be found in other parts of the budget. For example, opening hours can be reduced, the book fund can be reduced, etc. However, savings to the book fund come back to bite the service in the medium to long term, as it becomes impossible to refresh the stock, and users drift away in ever greater numbers. Reducing opening hours doesn’t address the problem of over-provision, and leaves the service having to bear unecessarily large overheads which may have been affordable at one time, but are now crippling the service. A rationalisation of provision may well offer up big enough savings to allow some reinvestment in the service, thus making it more rather than less atttractine to its existing and potential users.

The key point is that not all closures represent actual cuts in service levels. Each situation has to be seen on its merits, and over-provision taken into account. However, it will require major acts of political bravery to push through such closures in places like Middlesbrough. Local councillors understandably do not want to wield the axe. Central government could help by resetting clear standards of provision which take account of both the current budget pressures, and of changing technology.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012