Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Brent SOS Libraries Campaign

Brent SOS Libraries is an umbrella group for local library campaigns in Brent. Throughout 2011 it has been campaigning against Brent Council’s plans to close half the borough’s libraries.

Summary

Brent libraries perform myriad functions that benefit large and unrelated cross-sections of the community. Whether considered by age, ethnicity, income, employment, marital status, disability, profession, language, residency, linguistic ability, refugee or other status, many dependent on local libraries are the most vulnerable to their loss.

The benefits far exceed the costs—on educational prospects, on social cohesion, on employment prospects, on physical and mental health, on opportunity and life chances, and on the environment. The National Literacy Trust has found that one in three children does not own a book, and one in six people in the UK has the literacy level of an eleven-year-old. Local authorities must assess the likely impact on literacy and life chances of the withdrawal of library services.

Brent Council failed to assess the needs of library users. It failed to analyse the effects of the loss of community facilities on the life chances of those who “live, work and study” under its jurisdiction. Brent particularly ignored the effect on schools.

It presented closures as a “Libraries Transformation Project” and ignored the findings of its own consultation. It misinterpreted or misrepresented unrelated and out-of-date data to justify closures.

We urgently recommend that the Secretary of State uses his 1964 Museums and Libraries Act powers to intervene in Brent to halt further implementation of the closure programme and look properly into whether Brent is discharging its duty by means of a public inquiry.

Background

1. In November 2010, Brent Council launched its Libraries Transformation Project (LTP). Of the borough’s 12 libraries, Sue McKenzie, head of libraries, proposed to close between five and seven. The preferred option was to close six, Barham, Cricklewood, Kensal Rise, Neasden, Preston, Tokyngton. The only other stated option was to “do nothing”.

2. The closures were to come into effect at the start of the 2011–12 financial year. Crucially, the LTP concealed plans for the remaining six libraries, including:

Brent’s largest and most expensive library, Willesden Green, is to be demolished in 2012 and rebuilt over a two-year period, leading to a further loss of provision.

The second largest, the Town Hall, is due to close and move south to the Wembley Stadium complex, largely inaccessible on match days, by 2013.

The lease on only remaining library in Brent North, Kingsbury, expires in 2013.

3. A public consultation ran between 18 November and 4 March. The questionnaire was only made available in library buildings on paper or online, and only in English. The consultation omitted the additional closures above.

4. The consultation invited plans to run the libraries earmarked for closure “at no cost to the council”. This “informal tender” was not publicised or extended beyond library users and key detailed criteria were concealed.

5. Brent Council ratified the closures at a budget meeting on 18 February 2011, even though the consultation was ongoing until 4 March, and Sue McKenzie was not due to report until 11 April.

6. In good faith, library user groups submitted alternative plans. They included:

temporary service reductions based on need and efficiency;

supporting provision with volunteers;

sponsorship and other commercial opportunities;

sharing library premises with other services—including schools—or parties; and

more than £1m of centralised savings identified by library groups’ detailed analysis of the libraries budget.

7. Requests for the equalities impact assessment and user needs assessments during the consultation period were denied. Assessments were not made available until the “eleventh hour”, 28 March 2011. Of the 1,587 responses to the consultation, 1,146 “informed” the report of 30 March.

8. The 175-page report was only made available a week before the council executive voted for the closures on 11 April, so was not subject to due diligence and scrutiny. 82% of respondents did not accept the closures were reasonable1 (Appendix 3, 5.5.2, p 35). All proposed alternatives were dismissed1 (Appendix 6, p141) and the council refused further discussions with user groups.

9. Users of the six libraries proposed for closure were left with no alternative but to seek a judicial review of the decision on behalf of affected communities.

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century

10. The Libraries and Museums Act and Charteris agree: “A comprehensive and efficient service is one that is based on local needs”.

11. Brent interprets “comprehensive” as “delivering a service that is accessible by all residents using reasonable means, including digital technologies” and “efficient” as “the best use of the assets available … to meet its core objectives and vision, recognising the constraints on council resources1 (Appendix 1 3.4, p11).

12. Brent’s assessment of “need” is wrongly secondary to “core objectives and vision”—not statutory obligations, but political and ideological aspirations. There is no democratic mandate because the LTP was not part of the Labour administration’s pre-election policy.

13. Brent’s consultation found the main motivation for using a library is for “core” purposes such as borrowing books or items, using computers, find information or read (Appendix 5.4.2, p 3). This data was disregarded and instead a 2009 Plus survey cited to justify promotion of a “virtual” library service.

Purpose of visit

Borrow books

986

89%

Find something out/look for information

648

59%

Read magazines or newspapers

562

51%

Borrow multimedia items (talking books, CDs, DVDs)

453

41%

Use the computer and internet facilities

374

34%

Attend a children’s activity eg story time

353

32%

Research topics

304

27%

Study or homework facilities

294

27%

Attend an exhibition or community meeting

179

16%

Attend a reading group or author talk

159

14%

Use Wi-Fi

130

12%

Follow a computer-based learning course

104

9%

Attend a regular event eg over-50s club

50

5%

Other services or facilities

71

6%

14. Like Wirral, “the council has displayed a lack of logic around why some facilities were recommended for closure and not others”. The data on which “efficiency” was judged was flawed. Brent chose to close libraries (in blue) that offered “better value for money” than those to remain open (in red).

Visits 201011

Budget 201011

Cost per visit (£)

Willesden Green

508,599

559,500

1.10

Ealing Road

212,548

330,800

1.50

Harlesden

187,972

332,500

1.70

Kingsbury

174,843

398,200

2.20

Preston

87,508

194,200

2.20

Neasden

117,131

294,500

2.50

Town Hall

157,803

416,000

2.60

Kilburn

92,037

266,000

2.80

Barham Park

closed for a refurbishment during year

Cricklewood

45,266

144,700

3.10

Kensal Rise

41,420

128,800

3.10

Tokyngton

40,807

142,700

3.40

15. Visitor numbers at the libraries to remain open were elevated by investment in additional services and extended opening hours. This is epitomised by Willesden Green, which contains archives, a museum, public toilets, an external computer suite, parking ticket sales, Nintendo Wiis, table tennis and offices, which was benchmarked against libraries such as Preston, which is a fraction of the size but does not even have a public toilet.

16. Charteris warned: “The Council took the decision to close the libraries without having first established the extent and range of library provision it was providing within the buildings, including those which were ‘core’ to the service and which were ancillary”.

17. Brent’s report acknowledged other measures of “performance” or “efficiency”, such as issues per visit. On this index, Preston performed best with almost one issue per visit.

18. Brent selectively cited the Museums Libraries & Archives 2010 report What do the public want from libraries?, ignoring key guidance such as: “Target genuine customer needs, don’t squeeze out books”; “Libraries are valued as public spaces; libraries are social levellers.” And: “The physical library building is highly valued by many user groups for its unique features and as a neutral public space. Libraries are often seen as quiet, without too many distractions to study or relax, a safe space where children can go on their own, and a space for some groups, particularly older people or those who might be isolated, to socialise”.

19. Brent’s vision included: “Library members will be able to access a virtual library service from the comfort of their own homes.” Many users visit the library because they have no computer or internet access at home. Brent carried out no analysis of users’ access at home.

20. Brent SOS would support the reintroduction of national library standards based on need to reduce the damage to our own and other library services, and provide a minimum level of protection for users.

The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report

21. Brent’s provision does not comply with any definition of “comprehensive”, physical, geographical, “digital” or other. There is no agreed service level of library provision.

22. Brent’s proposals and execution thereof bear remarkable similarities with those of Wirral, as Charteris stated: “The public Inquiry into Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council’s (MBC) Library Service found the Council’s decision to restructure its Library Service to be in breach of its statutory duties under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, to provide ‘comprehensive and efficient public Library Services’ for all persons desirous to make use thereof”.

23. “The primary reason for this breach is that the Council failed to make an assessment of local needs … The Council therefore cannot have reasonably met such needs in the context of its statutory duties and available resources. Without any such reference point of the needs to be met, the Council was unable to identify a reasonable option for meeting such needs both comprehensively and efficiently”.

24. Brent’s closures are also incompatible with its duties under the Act to those who “are resident, work in or are in full-time education in the borough”.

25. “Resident in the Borough”: Brent’s report states: “An estimated 543 residents attended the forums during the consultation.” These forums have limited capacity, are held in the evenings in locations where it is necessary to travel. They are occasional and cover a wide range of issues (eg pest control, religion, educational policy) in a short space of time. The council has no obligation to respond to issues raised.

26. The maps below show the location of Brent libraries before and under the LTP.1

27. The National Library Standards (now abolished) recommended that households within cities should be within one mile of a static library. Brent Council set 1.5 miles as the maximum distance for residents from a library. Councillor Ann John, leader of the council, claimed: “Every resident will still be within one and a half miles of one of the six libraries still open” (Daily Telegraph, 28 October 2011). However, there are large parts of the borough outside this catchment area. Meanwhile Brent services large parts of neighbouring boroughs (see map).

28. Brent has admitted many residents live more than 1.5 miles from a library and modified its statement to “1.5 miles from any library”. This is a clear breach of its duty to those “living, working and studying the borough”. One local authority cannot rely on the services of a neighbouring authority in discharging its duties.

29. Brent’s own map of libraries in neighbouring authorities shows a high concentration near Kilburn (open) and a dearth in Brent North and Brent South1 (Annexe 4.10, p130).

30. The equalities impact assessment was based on data from the 2001 census, unqualified by or cross-referenced with the findings of the LTP consultation. For example, “ethnicity is not available for a proportion of library borrowers1 (Appendix 5.2.1, p35). Data from 2007 and 2011 was available, but instead 2001 figures that pre-date EU and refugee migration as a result of conflicts (Sri Lanka, Somalia) and the financial crisis.

31. There was no impact assessment of the LTP on non-English speakers, library users who were unable to answer questionnaires because of age, or physical or mental disability, or on schools, community, religious, educational, ethnic or other organisations.

32. “Only 23% of the borough’s population used a Brent library in the last year1 (Appendix 3, 1.6, p30). And yet “It proved very difficult to engage with and obtain responses from current non-users of library services during the public consultation, particularly with regard to the completion of the questionnaire”.1 (Appendix 5.4.4, p39)

33. Brent noted that 90% of library users walk to the library (Appendix 3, 5.35, p37. And yet the closures were justified by extensive reference to users’ ability to drive to or reach other libraries by public transport (PTAL), eg “Bus travel is free from [sic] under 5’s [sic], Five to 15 year olds and 16–19 year olds in full time education”.1 (Annexe 4.1, p92)

34. “Working in the Borough”: No attempt was made to contact library users through local employers.

35. “In Full-Time Education in the Borough”: Brent failed to plan library access and provision for those in full-time education. It failed to consult schools on library use and the impact of the closures. Schools that expressed concerns were ignored.

36. “A class visits questionnaire was distributed to 79 schools; 60 primary, 15 secondary and 4 special. There were only 8 responses; all from primary schools … “Three of the schools responded specifically about three of the libraries proposed for closure: Cricklewood, Kensal Rise and Neasden Library Plus.

37. “The responses from all eight schools showed good local usage of libraries with the services primarily utilized being borrowing, storytelling, curriculum studies and author events. Class visits are commonly reported as being made to the nearest library with walking or mini-bus being the method of travel.

38. “Five of the eight schools would not be prepared to use an alternative library”.1 (Appendix 3, 7.6.1–4, p51)

39. Despite letters and petitions from teachers, students and parents, the council failed to address concerns. Charteris found: “The Council has not been able to demonstrate that it has had due regard to the general requirements of children. I consider this to be a breach of its statutory duties”.

The impact library closures have on local communities

40. Brent Council has failed to project or monitor the effect of the LTP on local communities.

41. Despite Brent Council’s insistence that the Libraries Transformation Project is a service improvement, library users have lost 218 hours in return for just 23 added, and lost more than 100 study spaces and more than 50 computers. A further 124 study spaces will be lost with the demolition of Willesden Green Library.

Comprehensive full library service

Libraries Transformation Project

Library

Hours

Days

Late Openings

Sunday opening

Hours

Days

Late Openings

Sunday Opening

Barham

33

4

1

0

0

0

0

0

Cricklewood

33

4

1

0

0

0

0

0

Ealing Road

56

7

2

1

56

7

2

1

Harlesden

55

6

2

0

60

7

4

1

Kensal Rise

33

4

1

0

0

0

0

0

Kilburn

43

5

2

0

56

7

2

1

Kingsbury

56

7

2

1

56

7

2

1

Neasden

43

5

2

0

0

0

0

0

Preston

43

5

2

0

0

0

0

0

Tokyngton

33

4

1

0

0

0

0

0

Town Hall

51

6

2

0

56

7

2

1

Willesden

65

7

4

1

65

7

4

1

Total

544

64

22

3

349

42

16

6

42. Sue McKenzie has “no projections” of how many users of closed libraries would transfer to remaining libraries (meeting transcript February 2011,2 email December 2011.3)

43. Brent’s “mitigation” largely consists of users travelling to more distant libraries, including in neighbouring boroughs Ealing, Harrow, Camden and Barnet. This is a breach of duties to those “living, working and studying within the borough”.

44. 2,000 letters and witness statements submitted to the DCMS show many library users cannot or will not travel to more distant libraries for reasons such as:

“I am on DLA (Disability Living Allowance) and cannot travel to another library”.

“I am eight years old and my mum doesn’t have time to take me to another library”.

“I cannot afford the bus fare to travel to another library”.

45. Kensal Rise users have responded with a voluntary service since October 2011. Preston users offered the same to children during October half-term.

46. Brent failed to mitigate against the impact on children, school students, and young people on the effects of library closures. we have submitted evidence to the Brent Council and DCMS of the effects on schoolchildren:

400 letters from Preston Park Primary School.

Petitions signed by more than 12,000 library users, including:

staff, children, students and governors from Byron Court School, the Swaminarayan School, Copeland Community School, Park Lane Primary School, Claremont High School, Preston Manor High School, Wembley Primary, Wembley High Tech, Buxlow, St Christopher’s, Chalkhill Primary, Jewish Free School, Preston Park Primary, Oliver Goldsmith, St Gregory’s Roman Catholic School, the Gower School, the Ascension Preschool, Barham Primary, Sudbury Primary, North London Collegiate; and

the congregations of the Mandir Neasden Temple, the Liberal Synagogue on Preston Road, Church of the Ascension, Church of the English Martyrs, St Augustine’s, St Erconwald’s, St Joseph’s, Church of the Annunciation.

Approximately 2,000 letters and witness statements from school children, senior citizens, unemployed people, people on low incomes, families and children, people who do not speak English as a first language, people with disabilities, and other users who have suffered loss.

47. Despite promises of “improved outreach” to mitigate against the loss of the libraries, there is no evidence that these groups have been offered services at all, and where they are considered, they certainly do not constitute a “comprehensive or efficient” service, and instead can be seen as promotional activities ancillary to a core service (email to Paul Lorber, 21.11.11).4

48. “Mitigation” is entirely unplanned, unprojected and uncosted. The “virtual offer” that will form the “core service” depends on ownership of personal computers—eg “smartphone apps to find the nearest library”, “events filmed for YouTube”, “book a computer” and “online enquiry service”—which by Brent’s own admission will be limited those who already own computers and have access to the internet.

49. Charteris concluded: “A key concern has been the absence of adequate plans for and commitment to an enhanced outreach service. Despite the Council saying during the Inquiry that the outreach services add to the provision of a comprehensive and efficient Library Service, plans have not been worked up in detail … without adequate plans for outreach services, the Library Service as whole will not be compliant”.

She required the Council to “evidence how it will meet the needs of all groups and communities”, including:

a description of local needs, including the general and specific needs of adults and children who live, work and study in the area; and

a detailed description of how the service will be delivered.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964

50. Despite more than 12,000 petitioners in Brent and more than 2,000 letters from those affected, and the continuing submission of evidence of loss, library users and communities remain in the dark about what damage must occur before the secretary of state intervenes.

51. The department met with Brent Council in June 2010, but the contents and outcome of the meeting remain secret, despite numerous requests.

52. We would ask that guidelines or rules to be set requiring a decision on intervention within a certain time frame of any significant change in local library service provision and fairness towards complainants so that their interests are taken into account in the same way that those of local authorities seem to be.

Conclusion

53. Charteris concluded: “This difficult situation could still be turned round … there is an opportunity now to draw on support available to the Council locally from the library user and campaign groups, potential partner organisations including Age Concern, the Reader Organisation and others …”Libraries play a significant role in the lives of many Wirral residents. Wirral’s libraries are clearly seen as safe, neutral spaces to read and study, and to receive the advice of trusted staff … The challenge for Wirral MBC now is to regain trust, and work with library users and other stakeholders to redesign the service. To do this, Wirral MBC would need to be prepared to invest skills and time up front to develop a genuinely community based library service that is sustainable”.

54. Brent has a similar opportunity. Campaign groups have galvanised communities to support libraries, where councils could not. At four of the closed libraries, community groups are ready to support council provision. At Barham, Kensal Rise and Preston users have set up charitable bodies and have interest from commercial sponsors and supporters, including sizeable registers of volunteers. At Cricklewood, users are in discussions with Cricklewood Homeless Concern about a joint venture.

55. Commercial partners are poised and prepared to help beleaguered communities. We cannot let this opportunity to save essential services pass. Yet Brent Council refuses to engage with the groups or to accept alternatives.

56. Parliament must now intervene on behalf of affected communities.

References Attached (not printed)

1 Brent Libraries Transformation Project report and appendices.

2 Transcript of meeting with Sue McKenzie, February 2011.

3 Email from Sue McKenzie: December 2011.

4 Email to Paul Lorber: 21 November 2011.

January 2012

1 Not printed.

Prepared 5th November 2012