Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Save Bolton Libraries Campaign (SBLC)

General

This submission draws upon the material contained in SBLC’s request to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (“the DCMS”) dated 21 December 2011 for intervention under s 10 of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 (“the 1964 Act”) in relation to the proposals of Bolton Council to reorganise its library service, which proposals include the closure of five libraries (one third of the network) and overall reductions in hours in the remainder of the network. However, its intention is to address more general issues pertinent to (a) the closures which currently threaten libraries throughout England and Wales, and (b) the delivery of library services in the future.

For the record, SBLC accepts that library services must bear their proper share of the burden of cuts to local authority funding and that, as indicated in the recent decision of the Court of Appeal in the Brent libraries case, the duty imposed on authorities under section 7 of the 1964 Act, to provide a comprehensive and efficient service for all who desire to use it has to take account of (inter alia) such financial limitations. However, those limitations must not be regarded by local authorities as carte blanche for the decimation of library services without proper regard to the important part libraries play in society or to the need to look properly at ways in which the services might be more economically delivered in accordance with the statutory obligations. Moreover, as was recognised by Sue Charteris’s report in the Wirral case (to which the committee will no doubt refer), reorganisations must be based upon proper strategic assessments rather than considerations of costs savings and asset management.

The Need for New Service Standards

One of the problems about the 1964 Act is that it was drafted in an era when statutory duties were often described in general terms without codes of practice or similar guidance to meaning. Thus, the parameters of library authorities’ duty under s 7(1) to provide a comprehensive and efficient service are unclear and recourse has to be had to the formulations of others such as the report on the Wirral Inquiry. Until 2008, there existed Public Libraries Service Standards issued by the DCMS, which covered such matters as accessibility (by reference to distance of travel) and opening hours (by reference to population). These have been abrogated, which SBLC considers to be a retrograde step, particularly when the absence of service standards in England is contrasted with the standards (Public Libraries Quality Improvement Matrix) issued by the Scottish Executive in 2007. General statements of the purposes of libraries such as those set out in the Unesco Manifesto for Public Libraries (Introduction and Key Missions) are not adequate and the Unesco Manifesto calls for standards to be provided.

The committee is asked to consider requesting the reintroduction of service standards and perhaps even producing a draft. Subject to that qualification, SBLC considers that the statutory definition of the ambit of the services to be provided by library authorities is adequate, except insofar as the detailed matters referred to in s 7(2) of the 1964 Act may need expanding.

The Need for a Disputes-Resolution Mechanism

Even if new service standards are introduced, the role of the DCMS in enforcing library authorities’ duties under s 1 of the 1964 Act (subject, of course, to the possibility of judicial review) should probably remain. However, there is a need for more detailed guidelines on when the DCMS will consider intervention, albeit subject to retention of the duty to secure enforcement of local authorities’ statutory obligations.

It is also inherently unsatisfactory that in the event that a local inquiry has to be directed into proposals by a library authority for reorganisation of its service, the inquiry has to be carried out by a consultant who may well be involved in designing the structure of such services for other local authorities. There is a shortage of such persons and the possibility of a conflict of interest is obvious. The methodology of resolving disputes must be patently fair and comply with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is thought that the task of conducting inquiries ought to be left to the Planning Inspectorate. Access to alternative dispute resolution (under the auspices of one of the recognised ADR institutions (eg the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution [CEDR]) ought to back the work of the Inspectorate.

Libraries and Localism

It has been a repeated criticism of the manner in which the DCMS have handled the issue of library closures that it has been resistant to the exercise of its statutory powers of intervention under s 10 of the 1964 Act. The supposition has been that it is concerned not to interfere with the government’s localism agenda. Whilst that concern, if it does indeed underlie policy, is understandable, it is in effect anticipating amendments to the 1964 Act which do not appear in the Localism Act 2011 or any other legislation. The powers under s 10 are there to supplement the duties of supervision imposed on the DCMS by s 1 of the 1964 Act and, as such, do not permit of the degree of discretion which is the general mark of powers.

Leaving that aside, the truth is that libraries, particularly the branch libraries which are most under threat, ought to be considered as assisting the development of community-led localism, and not just in their function as repositories of books for borrowing. Properly used, particularly if located with other local authority (eg SureStart) or public sector (eg NHS) service points, they form community hubs. Their importance to the elderly and to children is well documented, but, because usage by Asian communities is higher than average, they are important factors in securing cohesion. They can also be used to assist in the delivery of local authority services, a good example being Brighton and Hove City Council’s Council Connect project (The Guardian—23 November 2011) which provides local residents who lack internet access or online skills with information technology training and support; this is aimed at enabling them to use other local authority services online more easily and develop skills useful for employment and in their personal lives. The ancillary activities provided at branches (eg writing and reading groups, tai chi groups, local area forums, to name but a few) all play an important part in strengthening communities.

Libraries in Hard Economic Times

The next five or more years are almost certainly going to be hard on living standards. Christopher Platt, the Director of Collections and Circulation Operations at New York Public Libraries is recorded as saying (London Evening Standard—25 August 2011) that in times of financial difficulty, public libraries are needed more than ever.

Particularly in communities which are relatively deprived (in the Bolton case the catchment areas of two of the libraries threatened with closure contain areas within the 5% most deprived in England), the importance of a free library service on the doorstep cannot be overstated, and indeed the DCMS website recognises deprivation as an important criterion in deciding whether intervention is appropriate. Benefits such as job seeker’s allowance are not generous. Not only is travelling into the town centre of a large borough likely to prove expensive, particularly to eg a mother and two children, but in deprived areas there is relatively low internet access and/or availability of vehicular transport.

In areas of high unemployment/incidence of NEETs (Bolton ranks relatively high here), branch libraries can assist in helping people into employment, because, amongst the ancillary activities, they often house job centre sessions or provide assistance in completing job applications or developing interview skills.

The Need for a Moratorium on Proposals for Major Reorganisations

The committee will be aware that several local authorities have proposed closures and service reductions in relation to library services in their areas and that in many cases (including Bolton) are in the course of implementation (in Bolton’s case completion of implementation is scheduled for 31 March 2012). It is clear that the way in which library services are delivered in the future will have to change, but it is wrong in principle that the necessary reforms should be anticipated by severe reductions in services (including closures) which go beyond the closure of one or two libraries for the purpose of securing overall improvements regarded by the DCMS as possibly acceptable (see the DCMS website). It almost goes without saying that the process of producing a scheme for reorganisation of library services throughout England and Wales, giving statutory effect thereto and implementing the changes will take several years, starting with the deliberations of the committee and the production of its report.

It is also of importance that in 2011 Arts Council England initiated its Libraries Development Initiative, the overall purpose of which is to secure a vibrant library service for the future. Its four diverse projects (arts and culture within libraries; co-ordinating partnerships with other local authority departments; co-production projects relating to books and reading, and commercial partnerships) will time to reach fruition in the form of concrete proposals for the way forward.

In the interim, the consideration by the DCMS of individual requests for intervention and by local authorities of alternatives to closures such as those suggested by the 2011 Future Libraries Report (Change, options and how to get there) or elsewhere (see below) will often extend beyond the periods proposed for implementation of major reorganisations (Bolton Council has rejected implementation of sharing services with other Greater Manchester authorities on the grounds (inter alia) of the timescale involved).

It is suggested that, as an initial step, the committee should write to the DCMS to request that it ask local authorities to delay implementation of any proposals which involve significant reorganisation of library services until further notice from the DCMS.

It is accepted that local authorities, many of which are under great pressure to make substantial overall savings, will find difficulties in accommodating a moratorium. It is therefore suggested that the DCMS should consider interim funding. It is appreciated that the DCMS’s budget is itself stretched by the overall need to make savings and more specifically the financing of the 2012 Olympics-Paralympics. Much as it is hoped that the games will be a success, they constitute a one-off event located principally in one area of the country, whereas libraries are a great national and long-term asset deserving of preservation, albeit subject to modernisation of the service. Perhaps the DCMS might also look to contributions from other government departments (eg the Department for Education of the Cabinet Office).

Accessibility of Libraries

Closures of branch libraries inevitably increase the distances which users will have to travel to access the remainder of the network. The service standards in force to 2008 contained suggestions as to the proportion of households within given distances of a library; for instance, in the case of a metropolitan borough (eg Bolton) 95% of households should be within one mile (approximately 1,600 metres) of a library and 100% within two miles. It appears to have been considered by many of those responsible for library services that such standards were unrealistic. However, research-based evidence published since 2000 (eg “Guidelines for Providing for Journeys on Foot”—Institution of Highways and Public Transportation in 2000) suggests that 1,600 metres is very much at the limits of acceptability and that a maximum of 1,200 metres as walking distance would generally be more appropriate in an urban environment. The majority of trips to libraries are undertaken or started by walking, a mode of travel which is to be encouraged (DCLG Planning Guidance 13 [January 2011] at paras 19 and 74–76) for a number of reasons, including fitness, interaction with other members of local society, high energy costs and compliance with carbon reduction commitments. Obviously, acceptable walking distances vary from person to person and in accordance with weather and other conditions, but the sort of distances contemplated by many authorities (including Bolton) after reorganisations are likely to prove unacceptable to many of the categories of persons protected by the Equality Act 2010 and to those properly classifiable as deprived. The problems arising from excessive walking distances are also highlighted in the Wirral Report (eg paras 6.13.1 and 6.17).

Libraries and Literacy

The committee will undoubtedly receive considerable evidence on the value of libraries in arresting the current decline in literacy standards in the UK and indeed more generally on education-related matters. The National Literacy Trust’s report of February 2011, highlighting the fact that children who use libraries are twice as likely to be above-average readers, is just one relatively recent piece of evidence.

SBLC does not intend to duplicate the detailed evidence which will be put before the committee, but would simply observe that local branch libraries, rather than central libraries, play a hugely important role. It is in the branches where initiatives such as the annual Summer Reading Challenge is largely organised and such activities as “toddlers’ tales” are provided. Furthermore, it is vital to primary schools that there should be a local library to which annual or even twice-yearly visits can be organised. If primary schoolchildren have to make a journey into a town centre, presumably in conjunction with parent(s), in order to access a library, usage is likely to drop off.

Libraries and Computer-Literacy

The RaceOnLine2012 project is designed to increase computer-literacy. The groups primarily targeted are older people and those who are on relatively low incomes. These are categories of persons to whom accessibility to local branch libraries is important. Those branches not only provide computer and internet access but often support courses on IT-related matters, a service whose continuation after the RaceOnLine project comes to an end.

SBLC hopes that the committee will receive evidence from Martha Lane-Fox, who heads up the RaceOnLine project on behalf of the Cabinet Office.

Alternative Methods of Delivering Library Services

SBLC hopes that the committee will receive evidence from Tim Coates, ex-MD of Waterstones, whose views on how delivery of library services might be improved and closures avoided are of considerable interest. In particular, his observations on the project of modernisation of the service at Hillingdon, which was, for some unaccountable reason, never investigated in any detail by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which is now merged with Arts Council England, need to be considered, not least because he has told SBLC that “Roy Clare (then head of MLA) was made aware of the significance of this project at a formal private meeting with book industry leaders in 2007, shortly after he was appointed. He was told of the willingness of the trade to revise its supply systems to save money in a library service like Hillingdon. Hillingdon was to be used as an example of how improvement could be made at the same time as efficiencies. The shame is that it took four years for him to produce (a) scrappy set of notes, and that he never managed to do anything with them. The work could still be implemented and would save, in my view, £200 million across the country.”

Obviously, the general power of competence conferred upon local authorities by the Localism Act 2011 offers prospects of greater co-operation between such authorities and public and private sector bodies. At present it is unclear how this will affect delivery of library services, but the possibilities require to be examined.

Subject to the general comments set out above and on the subject of a need for a moratorium to enable assessment of alternative methods of delivery, SBLC’s views on some of the ideas set out in the 2011 Future Libraries Report are as follows:

Increased use of volunteers—this is acceptable if used to back up professional staff but not as a substitute therefor, and, in any event, regard must be had to the likelihood of future availability of volunteers from a corps (perhaps supplied by local school(s).

Community Trusts—again these are likely to require input from volunteers, so similar comments apply as above, and furthermore the likely loss of business rate relief after transfer of control of such rates to local authorities will have an impact on the viability of such trusts, as will the terms upon which local authorities are prepared to release their buildings to such trusts (especially as to rent and repair) and upon which start up assistance will be offered.

Colocation with other services—this seems to be a way of achieving savings, particularly if premises are shared, and offers a way to strengthen local communities.

Locating libraries in shops—this approach is being pioneered in Bradford and Hull and clearly deserves to be investigated, particularly if the location of the shop in question is close to other community facilities.

Shared services—the Future Libraries Report identifies the possibility of substantial savings by means of sharing management and stock procurement, but some library authorities (including Bolton) are of the view that worthwhile savings are not achievable thereby, and, as MLA has supported the idea that savings are achievable in the report (but has, independently of the report, backed Bolton in its assessment), the matter must be fully investigated and SBLC hopes that the committee will receive evidence on this both from the ex-MLA personnel involved in the assessment of shared-service schemes (particularly those involved with the Greater Manchester feasibility study) and from those in local authorities and formerly with MLA who doubt the efficacy of the concept.

Conclusion

SBLC has tried to deal with the issues stemming from library closures and reorganisations and proposals for the future in general terms but the committee will obviously be concerned to consider also the detailed evidence from many local authority areas in reaching its conclusions. SBLC hopes that the committee will take evidence relating directly to the impact of Bolton Council’s proposals on the borough and its inhabitants and, if so, SBLC will endeavour to assist the committee.

The Bourdillon Report, the basis of the 1964 Act, refers (para 12) to the public library service as “a great and developing national asset …”; it remains a great national asset, whose development should not be curtailed. In that spirit, SBLC welcomes the committee’s intention to investigate the various issues relating to the future of library services.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012