Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Executive Committee of the Association of London Chief Librarians

The Association of London Chief Librarians is a regional group of the Society of Chief Librarians and this response is intended as complementary to their submission.

A comprehensive and efficient library service is one that meets the needs of a wide cross-section of local residents, businesses, students and visitors to the local authority area. The 1964 Act needs revision and definition, though not becoming so prescriptive that it undermines local accountability or judgement. The definition should include access to electronic resources—onsite and remotely—as part of the “comprehensive” offer, and a requirement on the Secretary of State to ensure provision by superintending local authorities and lobbying and regulating the supply and distribution industries as necessary.

It is impossible in a short answer to determine whether all of the library closure proposed by authorities in response to public sector financial pressures are justified or compatible with the Act and the Charteris Report. Some library closures are undoubtedly justified, to replace worn out, inappropriate or expensive to maintain facilities, to redirect resources, or to downsize library expenditure in relation to overall local spending plans. Maintaining all existing libraries ad infinitum is not recommended: needs, tastes and local patterns of activity change and it is the local authority, in consultation with communities, that is best placed to judge. It seems obvious but libraries need to be located where people can easily access them and they have some visibility and profile. Some are not. Local authorities may choose to retain a large number of libraries in local communities—possibly with fairly restricted resources and access in the current climate, or by focusing on services over stock and colocation with other public provision. Others may wish to concentrate spending on a smaller number of “hubs” to provide extensive stock and opening hours. Many authorities have been able to find most of their savings from back office reductions minimising the impact on customers. There is some innovative and interesting work going on in several London boroughs around this. In urban areas particularly, sharing library provision across boundaries is becoming a reality. The findings of the Charteris Report are important in respect of closures and reorganisation, as such decisions—even to retain the status quo—should be informed by clear strategic planning and widespread public engagement. The views of pressure groups are important but should not dominate the debate as the public library is a universal service, and there is a risk that the less vocal and organised will not be heard.

Closing a library without reprovision is a difficult decision, even as part of a strategy to improve services overall as inevitably some will be disadvantaged. The campaigns to keep libraries open demonstrate that there is both a strong commitment among customers (however small their number) and a more general sense that libraries are a civilising influence and should be retained, even among those who do not use them. Some authorities have found a middle route, engaging volunteers and local organisations to take over running a library where the local authority can no longer resource it as a priority. This should be evaluated as it is likely to be increasingly a feature of the library landscape. In any case where a closure is proposed, because it is mostly likely to impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged people—very elderly, disabled people, young children and those on the lowest incomes, the advice of the Charteris Report and recent judgements, concerning the need to thoroughly examine the equalities impacts, is sound.

The current powers are limited but we would caution against a major expansion as this is contrary to the localism agenda promoted by all major parties and the direction of travel for local government. The Secretary of State (SoS) intervened effectively in the case of Wirral, where an enquiry resulted in revisions and rethinking, and it may be that a lighter touch form of this approach could be developed so that it could be used slightly more frequently and in cases where changes proposed are more modest than the Wirral’s but still significant and contested. However, we agree with the Society of Chief Librarians’ contention that it is consistency of application that matters. In addition to the SoS it should be remembered that citizens can and do use judicial review and referral to the Local Government Ombudsman and will have community right to challenge from April.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012