Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Wyre Forest Agenda

Overview

The Library Service in Wyre Forest is currently housed in three locations:

1.Kidderminster Central Library (dedicated building).

2.Stourport on Severn Library (shared County Building).

3.Bewdley Library (dedicated building).

These buildings are all managed and staffed by Worcestershire County Council and over the last few years the range of services offered have expanded to include Adult Learning, free internet access and help and training for beginners, wi-fi facility, increased community outreach work.

The Impact Of The “Cuts” Agenda

The impact of the more recent Government cuts on local authority budgets has resulted in a review of the Library Service across the County, with some sweeping changes proposed for Wyre Forest. This will mean reduced opening hours, staff job losses and the potential closure of Libraries if savings are not met in phase 1 of the review.

For example, across Worcestershire, the Service is facing a cut of 28% in its budget with approximately 2830 FTE posts at risk, saving £620,000 in the financial year 2012–13. All of the job losses will be front line staff with no proposals for management grades to be cut, which can only result in reduced opening hours and reduced service delivery. The actual job losses and financial cuts for Wyre Forest is unknown because it is still subject to consultation, and the proposals around re-housing services in shared buildings through Community Asset Transfers (CAT managed by the voluntary sector) are still under discussion.

In Wyre Forest, the plans propose that services such as Connexions (ex-career service) is housed within Kidderminster Library, with the County Council keen to offload its Stourport site to a “Community Asset Trust” in order to save money, and Bewdley to re-locate within the local museum.

While this is preferential to outright closure, it does bring with it risks to the Service

1.A potential for conflict and dissatisfaction from the local community.

2.The potential transfer of “responsibility” for the service from statutory to voluntary bodies with associated accountability risks.

3.Diminished service and quality levels with reduced paid staffing and reliance on volunteers.

4.The potential, in an arms-length service managed by the council, in buildings not owned by the council, for financial failure and longer-term service instability and insecurity impacting upon Library provision.

5.Governance quality and equality issues by local CAT’s. There is potential for local conflict between individuals and groups (community and political), additional tiers of bureaucracy, buildings and maintenance ownership questions, with issues of muddled health and safety responsibility.

6.With more services sharing both council and CAT buildings, Libraries could be seen to be fighting for their unique and individual identity as a distinct public knowledge and empowerment service within shared centres. The potential for conflict, competition, community disenfranchisement, community apathy, public misunderstanding of their role, or even a risk of antipathy against the Library Service in shared buildings that may house conflicting services is a source for concern.

All of this results in matters that require much greater thought and understanding of the issues at play, and this, along with concern about the impact of the cuts locally, falls within the scope of the inquiry and its terms of reference, namely:

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 Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report [into the 2009 Wirral closures].

The impact library closures have on local communities.

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

“Wyre Forest Agenda”, has sought the opinions of local people and staff representatives, using its unique public forum for local debate, on both the local Library Service Review and The Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Inquiry. The Agenda forum consultation platform represents a “free thought” site, free of censorship, political control or direction.

The Wyre Forest Agenda reflects a wide variety of opinion and demonstrates the high regard in which Libraries are held within our community.

Question 1: What constitutes a “comprehensive and efficient” library service for the 21st century?

Libraries form a unique part in our culture and heritage, and as centres of learning, personal development and community focus, it was felt this role must remain as a distinct identity. There is no absolute objection to Libraries’ sharing services as a community resource. Indeed, the County Council and District Council services provided by the Hub, Job-Centre Plus, Registration Service, Police, CAB, NHS eg Healthy Lifestyles initiatives already co-exist. But it must not be to the detriment or in conflict with the fundamental core objectives of the primary service; which is and should remain, the “library”, with its accessibility to knowledge and local community engagement. The cuts agenda should not be seen as a ready argument to undermine this role simply based on cost. The value of a library to the local community is based on much more than cost alone—and cost should not be the prime driver of whether to retain or close a Library.

Response

In this sense, the Library buildings should remain in public hands, publicly accountable and funded, along with the staff within and the key services provided. The Library and its library service should be the key focus of activity, with other services a supplement and not a replacement of that core activity.

Question 2: The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report [into the 2009 Wirral closures]

Closing Libraries simply to save money is in conflict with the aims and objectives of the above Act. However, closure, at least not yet, is not proposed by Worcestershire County Council in the Wyre Forest district. The further sharing of services, loss of County buildings, reduced front-line staffing, reduced opening hours, increased role for volunteers and the transfer of council assets is.

While this may save a service, at least wholly, partially or even temporarily; the fear is it could so fundamentally degrade the primary service and future viability and accountability of it, as to render it unrecognisable to the service catered for in the Act. That, in itself, is incompatible with the Act, and as such, should be sufficient to raise levels of concern about any proposals for sharing services or asset transfer. If a council cannot control what goes on in the buildings because it does not own them, and may not be able to intervene, how can it be accountable for provision, an in turn, does that not diffuse any powers the Secretary of State has?

The question therefore is surely, any CAT of Library buildings should be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State with associated conditions to safeguard the future of and delivery of the service? This is in line with the already existing provision on ‘Interventions’ covering community needs analysis, consultation, strategic planning and equality impact assessments.

Indeed, concerns have been raised locally about the transfer of responsibility for buildings, how that may impact upon services, and especially the use of volunteers to replace paid professional and qualified staff who are skilled in the work they perform. Where a council seeks to transfer responsibility for Library Service delivery, in part or whole, from a statutory to a voluntary body, then it should be subject to a duty of rigorous safeguards and future funding guarantees.

The current plans for Wyre Forest ARE about saving money but pay too little attention to the long term safeguards of the service in order to satisfy short term savings required due to central Government funding cuts and local council ambitions.

Response

Any proposals that could impact upon the long-term viability of Library provision, or any transfer of assets; should be subject to Secretary of State approval. This could be accommodated in a simpler statutory referral system (under the control of the Secretary of State or designate national body) for example that negates the need for local communities to take the local authority through the courts if local people are unhappy with council decisions/action on Library provision. In any case, safeguarding duties should be in place to ensure all councils work within a prescribed framework.

Question 3: The impact library closures have on local communities

The question in Wyre Forest is not the topic of closure but rather the impact of the changes in service that ostensibly look like they prevent closure of the service.

Some of this is being done due to other agendas the local council have at district level—for example, with a new build council house coming on line, and it seems a convenient ‘fit’ to ditch other local authority building(s). Part of the equation is about the duality that some local councillors, in control of both district and county have, and a potential for conflict of interest in the decision making process. In effect, they are serving two masters by cutting at county level and looking like they are saving services, in some shape, at local level. While this is outside of the scope of the inquiry, it is nevertheless a valid concern, and further evidence that any changes to local Library provision should be signed off by the Secretary Of State. Not least for accountability and democratic reasons and in recognition that closure alone is not the only subject up for discussion with local councils and that in itself can be misleading to the public at large.

Many residents of Wyre Forest have been exasperated with the consultation processes engaged upon by the local council when it came to other services. Namely, new council buildings, car parking etc where the majority view of local people was ignored by elected councillors in charge of the council. There has been a similar skewing of the consultation processes at County level on cuts to services (ie adult care, schools) where petitions and other views opposing the council agenda were ignored or the questions posed to the electorate were deliberately guided to achieve an outcome of the councils intent. Sadly therefore, there is little faith in a local context, as is evidenced by several threads on the local Wyre Forest Agenda forum, that the needs and wishes of the community on Libraries may prevail in any consultation if the principle involved has a financial cost not to the councils’ liking, or does not fit with their overall material vision.

There is a current consultation process ongoing over the present Library Review so it is with some difficulty at this stage that any concrete views can be presented on any wider consensus, outside of those manifested here.

Response

In the event of a conflict between the community and council view as a result of any consultation process, the points made in summary of question 2 on a simpler, more cost-effective statutory referral system remains a key one, with the addition of an effective and robust consultation model—something which is sadly lacking in Wyre Forest, and we suspect, elsewhere in the country, which has lead to such legal challenges the Committee is only too well aware of.

Question 4: The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964

The best response to the scope of the inquiry in this respect is detailed in the summaries of question 2 and 3 above.

Conclusion

The committee seeks answers to the questions raised about what is wanted from a modern library service and the role of the Secretary Of State and existing legislation?

“Wyre Forest Agenda” believes that the fundamental purpose of the Library remains unchanged. Its methods of delivery may have changed over the years and technology plays a part in this, but its purpose remains as it ever was.

It is a place of individual and community learning, engagement and empowerment that is answerable to the community, and in turn, those with statutory responsibility for providing the service are accountable to that same community to ensure its viable survival in times of change.

Its value to us is as a distinct community asset in its own right whose role should be instantly recognisable and not watered down so as to be subjugated to the needs of other services, financial expediency or conflicting inappropriate demands.

It should be protected as a public treasure and as an essential platform to the roots of our democratic structure as a civilised society.

To safeguard such essentials should remain the domain of Government through the Secretary Of State, or a designated body, so that the people can be assured of compliance to the original Act, in a fair, robust and accountable manner—something which is most definitely not assured at the present time.

As if by means of a future warning, the experience and potential pit-falls of the proposals of Worcestershire County Council (and Wyre Forest DC) are a timely reminder.

While there may be merit in the County Council proposals for the continued provision of a Library Service in Wyre Forest, the changes proposed have more the look of political and fiscal opportunity about them than any long term strategic planning to protect our Library Service.

There is no doubt that had the council not been forced into making a 28% cut in its Library budget, the proposals would either not exist or at a minimum, be very different to those currently on the table. To base the future provision of a service purely on cost is fundamentally wrong and flies in the face of the objectives prescribed by local people (detailed above) to the provision of a Library Service.

While shared services look attractive to financial managers, it does pose the risk of undermining the service with conflicting and competing demands. Additionally, many may be jumping on the CAT bandwagon as an immediate safeguard to the provision of a Library Service here in Wyre Forest, but the risks are being downplayed, or the fiscal responsibilities of governance, in pursuit of local control, thanks to the impetus of a cuts agenda, are being too readily overlooked.

There are very real risks to be had from passing over control of public buildings that house valuable public and essential services to voluntary/charity organisations like CAT’s in the long-term. Especially so, when the financial picture of the country and Government spending is under pressure and cuts are being made.

Local people need to be assured that a robust process, free from political interference and financial manipulation exist at local level to ensure impartiality in any Library review. Plus, any appeal to council is not subject to the very same political interference that currently exists under local authority structures. And, if and when that fails, there is a higher statutory and fair process that can be referred to which does not mean expensive court action.

Further, maybe Libraries need to be re-designated in terms of central Govt spend to ensure local authorities protect their funding in better ways and give them higher priority.

These measures will ensure they remain a service free from political manipulation or fiscal expediency, and maintain their role and be safeguarded as a core community service.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012