Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Trustees of the North Taunton Partnership

Evidence Regarding Priorswood Community Library, from Trustees of the North Taunton Partnership

We would like to submit evidence to the Culture and Media Select Committee Inquiry relating to the impact that library closures have on local communities. We will specifically address ourselves to the impact of Priorswood library, located in a deprived part of Taunton, Somerset.

The North Taunton Partnership is a charity which was set up to advance the interests of people who live in an un-parished area that includes deprived wards in the northern part of Taunton. The Partnership grew from a multi-agency and cross-party councillors’ initiative that dates back to the mid-1990s. It is made up of local residents’ groups, and representatives from local government, housing providers, youth services, the police, health service agencies, schools and churches.

A Board of Trustees includes local councillors and residents reflecting different perspectives and parts of the community.

The Role of the Community Library: Key Points

There is a perverse logic in the idea that a deprived community should be expected to assume the responsibilities and risks associated with running a library which was placed at its heart because of the recognised needs.

Priorswood library is located in an area containing many deprived households. It is an important symbol of “official” commitment to the community which encourages both aspiration and social cohesion.

Through its story time sessions the library encourages very young children to love books and reading, and parents to enjoy time with their children and other families without being required to pay directly.

In practical terms the library fulfils needs that are not recorded through standard transaction metrics. Pupils use it as a quiet place to study, as do adult, non-traditional learners for whom college is too distant and/or too daunting.

As host to adult learning classes the library has reintroduced many disadvantaged adults to learning, and provided opportunities and support for people to gain their first-ever qualifications.

The library is an accessible and inclusive environment, both physically—for people with disabilities—and in terms of the support that staff are prepared to offer.

Residents without private transport—including disabled and elderly people—would either be financially penalised through high and rising bus fares, or denied access to the library service altogether, if this library were to close.

Without the library’s computer facilities the relentless move towards online information and access to services threatens to intensify the digital exclusion that many in the community experience. Many households cannot afford the hard- and software necessary for home computing and for maintaining security from viruses. The potential for cyber-fraud is unlikely to arise when vulnerable people are able to access support and guidance from library staff.

The library staff engage in low-profile outreach to disadvantaged parents and children who use the adjacent children’s centre, encouraging them to use and enjoy books—in some cases books are not kept in the home.

The current climate of public sector cuts and austerity gives impetus to the need to think more laterally about uses to which the library could be put by public authorities and voluntary bodies such as the North Taunton Partnership.

The Area that it Serves

North Taunton has been designated a “Priority Area” by the district council, and investigations are ongoing as to the area’s needs and how these might be met. The area has a higher than average number of socio-economically deprived households, among them lone parent households. Alongside younger families, and vulnerable adult households, the area also has a high proportion of long-established older residents, many of whom do not have private transport, live alone and are moving into extreme old age.

The area has a mixture of housing tenures, with a high proportion of social and private rented housing. Much has been done in recent years to improve the physical condition of the local authority houses. However, in many cases the interior design of these and housing association properties is far from ideal in terms of providing an environment for young people to study and do homework, or to entertain friends.

The North Taunton Partnership (NTP) provides a lunch club and aspires to develop other opportunities for lonely older residents to get together. It has also developed an annual programme of activities for children and young people in the area. We have very limited reserves, a hard-working, part-time paid staff of two, and our funds are otherwise entirely allocated to projects for which they were awarded to us.

Priorswood library was opened in 1968, having been built on land donated for the purpose by the District Council. The land itself is subject to a covenant which preserves it for community use. From its beginning librarians, aware of the various needs in the area, saw it very much as a community asset and sought to attract and involve “non-traditional” users through targeted activities. Many of the older residents talk about the time when they took their children to “story times” at the library, and thence developed a library habit that remains, becoming more important to them in old age.

North Taunton is also home to a school for disabled children and young people from primary school age up to 19 years. This is in close proximity to the community library, and staff and pupils are regular visitors. Next door is the local Sure Start children’s centre. Staff from the library take books into the centre to ensure that parents, some of whom may have literacy problems and/or feel intimidated by the idea of going into a library, have the opportunity to explore books and reading with their children.

In the late 1990s the library became a “pilot site” for the Council’s library service to test the value of installing community-use computers with internet connectivity. The original aim was to ensure that children, and adult learners from low income households who could not afford personal computers, would not be disadvantaged compared with those who had computers available at home for study purposes.

The pilot showed that the computers met a real local need, and the bank of PCs was significantly increased over the years, along with the range of users. Library staff helped many people to embark on their first experience of computer use. Over the years online courses have been run by adult learning providers using these computers, and we know of residents who achieved their first qualifications through this facility, at least one of whom is one of our Trustees who has a visual impairment. He is clear that he would never have gained the skills that added so much to his quality of life had it not been for this local library: access to the town centre library is problematic, as well as expensive by bus. His testimony has been echoed by many older and disabled people to whom this library is immeasurably more accessible and welcoming than the main library could possibly be.

Aware of the central roles that Priorswood library has played, and continues to play in the lives and learning opportunities of the community, Trustees of the Partnership became involved in a local campaign to halt its closure (scheduled for April 2012 until a judicial review resulted in the decision being ruled unlawful). The council has been judged to have failed in its duty to properly assess the impact of the county’s library closure programme on vulnerable groups protected by equality legislation. No separate equality impact assessments were carried out in relation the individual libraries scheduled for closure, so that the different needs and impacts were never investigated or taken account of. In addition, the council’s own statistics, which do not capture many of the benefits to the community that the library bestows, showed that over 37,000 recorded uses had been made in the previous year. The annual running cost of this library was reported by the library service—including staffing costs—to be around £50,000 in 2009–10.

The council had announced that they would be supportive of local communities taking responsibility for the condemned libraries, and would encourage the use of volunteers to staff them. An approach was made to Trustees of the Partnership in late 2010 suggesting they may like to take this on. This was a somewhat alarming suggestion for this small, voluntary organisation, which is already “punching above its weight” in terms of the projects it is involved with, and does not have anything approaching the capacity to do this. Neither was there any other community group in this deprived area in a position either to afford, or to take on the responsibilities and risks attached to the safe and efficient running of a library.

A former Chief Librarian for Somerset has attended meetings of residents campaigning for the retention of Priorswood library as a publicly owned facility. He experienced a previous era when volunteers were thought to be the answer to library cuts, and was able to draw on this experience to warn against this as a viable or sustainable solution. The lack of ability to impose discipline, consistency, reliability or standards of behaviour towards library users are among the inherent drawbacks which can undermine the popularity and usage of volunteer-led libraries.

A “community read-in” was organised in February 2011 to demonstrate local people’s opposition to the closures. Over 100 library users and residents attended and 99 of them recorded their personal messages to the Council, setting out in their own words why the library was important to them. These messages have been scanned into the attached PDF document, which we hope the committee will find time to look through (not printed). Twenty three local people joined a Friends of Priorswood Library group to participate in the campaign, and an additional 1,200 people signed up to a Friends’ group on Facebook.

In the council’s deliberations, this community library was judged to be too close to the central town library for its closure to have an adverse impact on its users. The personal messages tell a very different story.

The rising costs of bus fares; the increasing emphasis by government and public bodies on the use of online channels of communication and information; increasing unemployment and insecurity for people who are marginalised in the labour market; the domestic stresses that financial insecurity creates; social isolation and cuts in services and support for older and disabled people are all among the pressures that make the current and potential roles of this community library ever more valuable to the community. They also indicate a need for more lateral thinking about the additional uses to which it could be put.

The needs are all here and growing, and the community should be given the opportunity to be part of a discussion about which of these needs the library could be used to meet. Instead the threat of closure has dictated terms on which an ongoing debate was initiated and has been conducted, and which has relegated the library’s future to a subordinate consideration amid other agendas and broader plans.

These discussions have continued without regard to the judgement, and the requirement for the council to restore the service to its previous state and review its options. It has also continued without reference to the local community’s wishes and without regard to transparency. We believe that this suggests a failure on the part of the county council either to fully comprehend or give full weight to the importance of this facility to this community.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012