Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the London Borough of Brent

1. This document sets out the submission from the London Borough of Brent (“Brent Council”) in response to the invitation for written submissions from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (“the Committee”). The issues are:

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

The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (“the 1964 Act”) and the Charteris Report.

The impact library closures have on local communities.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the 1964 Act. .

Question 1—A Comprehensive and Efficient Library Service for the 21st Century

Providing a 21st Century, comprehensive and efficient library service in Brent

2. In April 2011 Brent Council, a typical inner-city Borough, decided to take a strategic approach to delivering a library service for the 21st century that is comprehensive and efficient. In Brent, the library service:

Provides access to a wide range of books (both hard copy and electronic) that reflects the diverse needs of its community and that can, within reason, provide any title a customer asks for. Brent’s book stock budget has been protected, enabling it to substantially improve the range of books and other stock items for loan.

Is based in buildings that are easily accessible, in town centre locations.

Is accessible 7 days a week and in the evenings.

Has an exciting range of courses, events and talks.

Has a comprehensive online service providing access from home or on the move, through mobile devices reflecting the move towards increasing digital access to information.

Offers a home delivery service and outreach services helping to promote independence for those more vulnerable members of their community.

Provides access to study space and homework clubs.

Provides extensive IT facilities and free wireless broadband to help promote educational attainment and to overcome barriers to access.

Provides access to neutral community spaces helping to promote community cohesion.

3. As part of this strategic approach the Executive also took the decision to close six library buildings that were poorly located and poorly used. This decision has been challenged through the courts, and the High Court and the Court of Appeal have upheld the decision taken by Brent Council in every respect. We believe therefore, that Brent Council is well placed to assist the Committee in its inquiry. Permission is being sort by the appellants to have the case considered by the Supreme Court.

Why did Brent Council take a strategic approach to redesigning library services?

4. In Brent, only 24% of the population visited a library in the last year. Library services have not kept up to date with the changing needs of our residents. Brent Council believes strongly that in a technological age a library service is not simply about buildings but is about providing a wide range of services, across a range of media, to meet the needs of users. The way people access libraries is changing and the use of remote technology has transformed access. Residents want access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and it is essential that a 21st Century library service keeps up with technological progress.

5. Many areas of London have a portfolio of library buildings based on 19th or early 20th century lifestyles and habits. Consequently many of these buildings are now poorly located and grossly underused.

6. Brent Council finds that 21st century public libraries flourish if they are located in town centres close to public transport and this view has long been proven correct. Brent is a London borough that is exceptionally well served by public transport. 98% of Brent residents live within 1.5 miles of a Brent library building and all residents live within 1.5 miles of a library. If a resident is unable to get to one of our buildings, we will take the service to them, either digitally or through an outreach service. It should also be remembered that residents are not constrained by administrative boundaries and may choose to use another council’s library service near to their work, school, or supermarket, for example.

7. The maintenance and staffing of library buildings is often a disproportionate drain on dwindling local authority resources, drawing funding away from the core purpose of a library—providing access to information and services. This is borne out by the fact that in Brent, prior to our Library Transformation Project, only 9% of the library budget was spent on stock. The majority of the budget was spent on staff and maintaining buildings.

How did Brent approach the redesign of its library service?

8. A modern library service will be different for each local community. What is right for a shire county may, or may not, be right for an inner city borough. Wherever the community, the library service must be informed by a detailed analysis of residents’ needs and a careful design of the services to meet those needs taking account of increasing digital access to books and information. In Brent this analysis included:

Extensive public consultation.

A detailed needs assessment.

Consideration of a wide range of information about the borough’s population, active borrowers, those who are not library users.

Research about what individuals wanted from a library service and where.

How access to books and information is changing in the face of developing technology.

9. Decision makers considered a detailed and thorough equality impact assessment, which addressed the differing needs of people with a range of different protected characteristics, and the effect of closure on such persons. The decision was taken against the background of unprecedented public spending cuts, and the need to make savings across the Council.

Question 2—Are Library Closures consistent with the 1964 Act and the Charteris Report?

10. Parliament did not envisage when it passed the 1964 Act that library services could never be re-structured and the service to be provided was “set in stone” as at 1964. Brent Council’s strategic approach was based on a comprehensive, evidence-based assessment of user needs and it redesigned its library service to meet the needs of residents in the 21st century whilst still providing a comprehensive and efficient service.

11. The duty is not, however, to secure a comprehensive service, regardless of the cost. The service must be “comprehensive and efficient”. The availability of resources will be a key factor here, particularly in these times of public sector funding cuts. It is important to consider the resources available to each library authority for the delivery of the service, the costs of the existing service, the balance between costs for different parts of the service (particularly the cost of maintaining buildings, staff and stock), the potential for savings through joint procurement and alternative provision, and whether better value for money can be achieved by providing the service in different ways.

12. This makes Brent’s strategic approach consistent with the 1964 Act and the Charteris report and this has been upheld by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

Question 3—Impact of Library Closures on Local Communities

13. The Brent library project is designed to meet the need of local communities now and into the future and provides what people need and want from their library service within available resources: an improved book stock, modern library buildings in accessible locations, improved outreach services, online access, imaginative events and activities and longer opening hours seven days a week.

14. A full Equalities Impact Assessment was conducted as part of the Libraries Transformation Project. Where a potential adverse effect due to issues of access and affordability has been identified, a range of mitigation measures has been established. These include outreach services, online and digital services, home delivery and home visits and monthly outreach deposit collections to specific centres. These mitigations were particularly tailored to those areas and communities most affected.

Question 4—Effectiveness of Secretary of State’s powers of intervention

15. The Secretary of State has taken a strategic lead in a number of ways to address the modern nature of a library service. In 2010 the DCMS published a policy statement on their Modernisation Review of Public Libraries. The report aimed: “to help libraries adapt to the internet revolution, grasp the opportunities of digital technology, and to respond to the decline in use of existing services, the current economic climate and the public’s expectation of more customer-focused public services”.

16. This work is further enhanced by the DCMS Future Libraries Programme. Formed by national and local government, and driven by councils, the programme will spread learning between library authorities to achieve cost savings, new partnerships and governance models, and to take advantage of digital opportunities.

17. Decisions about library services are, in the first instance, for democratically elected local authority councillors. It is submitted that the Secretary of State should defer to the local decision makers, who are more familiar with the local community, local needs, local resources and local priorities. If a library authority has completed a full consultation, considered all relevant matters, carried out a detailed assessment of need and a thorough and robust equality impact assessment, the Secretary of State should be very slow to intervene in decisions taken by democratically accountable local politicians. But Brent Council recognises that the 1964 Act strikes an important balance. In a situation where there is a strong case that a local authority has not complied with its statutory duties, then, as the Wirral case shows, the Secretary of State has the option of setting up an inquiry and, in the last resort, exercising default powers. In this way, the 1964 Act creates an effective partnership between local authorities and the Secretary of State, in which both have the joint goal of helping library services to meet local needs.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012