Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Nether Stowey Community Library Steering Committee

Submission Summary

Nether Stowey in Somerset was one of the first communities In Somerset to respond to the threatened closure of its library with a detailed plan of action to manage the library service at a local level. Crucially we worked closely with the County Council to arrive at a solution to the proposed withdrawal of funding from our village library. Our business and service plans had the full backing of our Parish Council and the support of the County Council. The recent Crown Court judgement against Somerset County Council’s proposed library closures has changed our plans in the immediate term. It may be some time before we know exactly how County will respond to this judgement, but it does NOT mean we will simply shelve our plans. Already we have agreed to establish a new support group in January 2012, Friends of Nether Stowey Library, which will continue to work with the County Council to augment the existing proposal. We are pleased to submit our vision of a local community library service.

1. In our view a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century should constitute

Involvement and engagement with the local community to ensure that the library is at the heart of the community and local needs are met.

Provision of an extensive range of high quality up-to-date books and other resources.

Inclusion of resources to suit a wide range of abilities and age groups.

Provision of attractive colourful books to inspire and encourage a love of reading.

An inter-library loan scheme enabling access to a wider range of specialist materials.

Up-to-date computer hardware with fast internet broadband connection.

E-books download service.

Printing and photocopying facilities.

A key collection of reference materials.

Quiet area conducive to study.

An inviting attractive library building to entice people in.

Professional, friendly and approachable library staff and volunteers.

Workshops at different levels to support effective information searching.

Involvement of local schools, Children’s Centres and nurseries to introduce the library to the very young.

Involvement of volunteers, working closely with the library service, to enhance and add value to library services.

Involvement of local businesses for publicity and fundraising.

Ready access to job market information eg job vacancies, job searching, help with CVs and job applications.

Resources on local history; conservation and environmental issues.

Social events ensuring the library building is an important social and intellectual hub for the local community.

Work with the local community to fundraise for specific library resources.

Co-location with other services where appropriate to reduce costs.

Good marketing and publicity.

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

The 1964 Act placed a duty of responsibility on each local authority to enable all persons in its area to have ready access to books and information.

The Charteris Report outlined that vulnerable and marginalised groups eg disabled, older people, those living in deprived areas, unemployed should have equal ready access to resources.

Further groups of the very young and young mothers should be included in the above categories of vulnerable people.

Local authorities must carry out a detailed Equality Impact Assessment of library closures on residents in their areas before closing libraries.

Not all people have access to expensive electronic resources. Somerset, for example, has areas with high unemployment and pockets of poverty.

With the downturn in the economy and increased economic hardship, libraries have an important part to play in encouraging people to maximise their potential by providing free access to resources and electronic media which might otherwise not be available.

3. The impact library closures have on local communities

Library closures can have profound physical, social and emotional effects on local communities:

The very young denied introduction to a wide range of well-written and illustrated picture books. Early intervention is crucial to individual aspiration.

Children and young people denied the opportunity to have their eyes opened to the wonder of books and encouraged to develop their literacy out of school.

Financial constraints and lack of transport precludes access to libraries for many people eg in rurally isolated and deprived areas.

Negative impact on people’s life chances and educational achievement through lack of access to information.

Elderly and disabled people affected adversely by withdrawal of their static library and mobile library services resulting in social isolation. Access to large print and audio books denied to them.

Lack of a safe, warm, comfortable, quiet study space to many young people, who may live in noisy cheerless crowded conditions, with consequent negative impact on their educational achievements and potential.

Library buildings can be social hubs for local communities. Closures impact negatively on the morale of local communities.

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

The Act gives clear direction that the Government must “superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and … secure the proper discharge of local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities”.

The Secretary of State must not shrink from his legal responsibilities and must be seen to take a firm stand in this regard.

Submission

Point 1—What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century?

1. Modern society is very different from that of 1964 when the Public Libraries Act of 1964 came into force, but basically the original purpose of the Act remains the same ie that all citizens should have ready access to books and information. The Act was a vision for the future to give all British residents the opportunity, free of charge, to access fiction and non-fiction books to enable and inspire them to advance their knowledge and understanding.

2. (a) “Comprehensive” (literally “broad in scope or content”) can mean two things in the context of libraries, that is:

An extensive range of resources offered.

A library should not be so far distant geographically from any resident as to preclude its use through disadvantage, poverty, lack of transport opportunities, either public or personal. We consider for purposes of item 2 that a library should be available in every neighbourhood or borough and that no-one should live more than 10 miles from an operational library (either as a central library or a branch).

(b) “Efficient”—a library which works effectively by providing a professional service of high quality which has a positive effect on its users.

3. In our opinion, a comprehensive and efficient library service should have a coherent vision for the future and should encompass:

(a)Involvement and engagement with the local community to ensure that the Library is at the heart of the community.

(b)Library staffed by professional, friendly and approachable personnel.

(c)An extensive range of high quality up-to-date books, fiction and non-fiction, and other resources organised professionally in order to make them easily accessible to the general public.

(d)The inclusion of resources, such as large print and audio books, for the very young, the visually impaired or elderly.

(e)Attractive colourful books to inspire and encourage a love of reading by the very young or those who find difficulty in reading eg picture books, “teenage” and adult easy-to-read fiction and non-fiction.

(f)An inter-library loan scheme (for a small charge) to enable access to a wider range of specialist books and other materials not otherwise available at local level.

(g)Up-to-date computer hardware with fast internet broadband connection. Contrary to popular belief, not all families own personal computers – access to these is essential in the modern age to enable individuals to achieve their educational potential and improve life chances. Increasingly, online job applications are the accepted norm.

(h)E-books download service.

(i)A basic collection of reference materials, eg atlases, reference books, directories, to encourage adept usage of such materials and less absolute reliance on electronic media.

(j)Quiet area conducive to research/study/homework purposes.

(k)An inviting library space of attractive design to encourage people into the library. Many people feel threatened by the concept of “libraries” and need help and encouragement to set foot over the threshold.

(l)A non-threatening differentiated introduction to the library and how it works – to include young Mums with young children; the elderly.

(m)Workshops, for example on the use of computers—at different levels—from beginners to more advanced information searching.

(n)Involving local schools, Children’s Centres and nurseries to encourage the very young to use the Library (once introduced to a library, the latter are very keen to use the library regularly and can often enthuse their parents, grandparents and siblings).

(o)Close involvement of the community so that local needs can be met.

(p)Involvement of local businesses, eg pubs and shops, for the purposes of publicity and possible fundraising.

(q)Ready access to information of importance to local people eg job vacancies, job searching, help with CVs and job applications; local history; conservation and environmental issues.

(r)Social events to ensure the library building is an important social and intellectual hub for the local community, for example, music events and talks; book and reading clubs; film club; after school provision; toddler and preschool storytimes.

(s)Work with the local community to fundraise for specific library resources.

(t)Good marketing and publicity.

The above are desirable features which will need strong and sustained voluntary, not to mention financial, support from the local community to achieve. A priority approach to these features will need to be taken at local level. The founding members of the Friends of Nether Stowey Library support group appreciate that both local resources and the strength of the community response will need to be taken into account in rolling out any proposed programme.

Point 2—The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report

Covered in Summary.

Point 3—The impact library closures have on local communities

4. [See also Summary] Those people who do not have the privilege of economic and social advantages are the hardest hit by library closures. Library closures can have a profound physical and emotional effect on local communities. Many people rely on their local libraries to access information or to provide a quiet study space which is warm and comfortable. The unemployed or people living in cold cheerless accommodation (or bed and breakfast accommodation where they have to go out during the daytime) can take refuge in their local library where they can have the opportunity for raising their literacy and educational potential. Children have somewhere safe to go after school, while parents are working, to do their homework, read for pleasure or use the computers, rather than wandering the streets. The elderly and disabled rely on easy access to their local library for supportive resources and social contact. Withdrawing library facilities to save money is short-sighted and will have a long-term negative impact on individuals and communities. Many of people in Britain first had their eyes opened to the wonder of books through venturing into their local libraries. To deny people today this same opportunity is an ill-considered measure.

Point 4—The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention

Covered in Summary.

ADDENDUM

The Nether Stowey Community Library Model

5. Nether Stowey is an historic village (population 1600 in 2009) bordering the Quantock Hills designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is a resilient, vibrant and lively community with a strong sense of identity. It benefits from a good range of retail, pubs, Post Office, Library and other services. The older part of the village is a conservation area, where Coleridge Cottage (National Trust) and Thomas Poole’s, House are located. A new nuclear power station nearby at Hinkley Point is currently planned with resulting economic and demographic impact on the village. Nether Stowey has been identified by Sedgemoor District Council as a key rural settlement which could provide a significant role in the future as a local service centre.

6. Nether Stowey was one of the first communities In Somerset to respond actively to the threatened closure of its library with a detailed plan of action to manage the library service at a local level. We have been working closely in partnership with the Somerset County Council in this regard. Crucially our business and service plans had the full backing of our Parish Council and also had the support of the County Council. The recent Crown Court judgement against Somerset County council’s proposed library closures has changed our plans in the immediate term. It may be some time before we know exactly how County will respond to this judgement, but it does NOT mean we will simply shelve our plans. Already we have agreed to focus on working with the County Council to improve the existing “offering”. In the original questionnaire sent out to parishioners, there was a strong call for later library opening hours, more ‘cultural’ activities and other community services. A task force has been created to work out how we might achieve this. It is clear that we will continue to need volunteers and funding.

7. Clearly we cannot expect County Council to enhance the existing service and it would be naive to assume that they will now continue financial support for our library indefinitely. We have built a firm basis for future local management of the library and will be keeping our plans in a state of readiness. We are indebted to our local supporters, especially those who have volunteered their time and pledged donations. We remain committed to fulfilling the project. [See Nether Stowey Community Library Business Plan]

8. Nether Stowey Library has always been at the heart of the local community. Due to current financial constraints, Somerset County Council has been obliged to look for ways in which to cut costs and this included the withdrawal of funding to Nether Stowey Library. Somerset County Council has been pro-actively working in partnership with Nether Stowey local community for the past year to offer local people the opportunity to be participants and influencers over its library service provision and responding to local needs through co-location, asset transfer and income generation.

9. A Nether Stowey Library Steering Committee was set up in February 2011 and worked over several months to explore the feasibility of a community-supported library in Nether Stowey. The result of the Committee’s work was incorporated into a Business Plan (separate document), which outlined the case for a Nether Stowey Community Organisation (NSCO) to manage Nether Stowey Library as a Community-supported library ie one retained within the public library network. In this respect it was a plan to continue the services of the present public library, currently fully supported by Somerset County Council, under separate Service Level and Data Processing Agreements. This plan provided information about the management, voluntary staffing and finance to be provided by the local community. It was planned to establish NSCO as an Industrial & Providential Society.

10. As a consequence of the outcome of the Judicial Review, Somerset County Council’s plans for library closures have been set aside at the present time. The County Council however is keen to continue to work in partnership with the community of Nether Stowey to proceed with the plans envisaged within the Business Plan to establish Nether Stowey as a vibrant social hub for the community. Therefore, the Steering Committee is proceeding with revised plans and is setting up a Friends of Nether Stowey Library organisation on 21 January 2012 to meet the aims and objectives of the original Business Plan.

11. Nether Stowey village is located in an area with pockets of rural poverty and disadvantage. A high percentage of village residents are aged over 65 (27%), 18% are aged under 15, 38% are economically inactive and 1% unemployed at Ward level. The county of Somerset is perceived as a rural idyll but there is a “hidden” element of rural isolation and pockets of disadvantage with low educational achievement, expectation and aspiration.

12. The Nether Stowey Community Library model can help to overcome social disadvantage and rural isolation by providing resources and opportunities for volunteering, confidence building, skills and lifelong learning. In this way it will invest in the future and provide good value for money, forming real partnerships harnessing the skills of local populations, with opportunities for people of all ages to actively participate in voluntary and community action.

13. Key to Nether Stowey Community Library’s success is the enthusiastic involvement of individuals volunteering in the delivery of added value services. It is envisaged that the Friends of Nether Stowey Library organisation will work in partnership with the library service to provide support and encourage community activities and functions in addition to a public library service. These services will be in accord with the agreements with Somerset County Council, and will develop Nether Stowey Community Library into a vibrant, valuable local resource and social hub for the community.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012