Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Libraries for Life for Londoners (LLL)

LLL was founded in 1999 to counteract a previous round of library closures in the capital. It is a London wide membership organisation hoping to represent, advise and connect all London library user and friends’ groups. Officers of the group presented evidence to the enquiry initiated by Gerald Kauffman MP, a previous chair of the CMS Committee. After 12 years of presenting evidence to different public library service bodies, seminars, conferences, consultations, local authorities and maintaining contact with elected representatives, we are back where we started.

2010–11 has seen widespread protest across the capital to prevent closures and diminution of the service. Resulting court actions illustrate the complete lack of guidance and leadership by those empowered to use both as well as the gravity of the situation and how residents value the library service. This encompasses valid concerns over access to education and knowledge, literacy (note the Evening Standard campaign on literacy which revealed appalling levels of attainment in schools) and the decline, or virtual eradication, of the library professional.

London covers areas of wealth but also areas of considerable deprivation. The latter cannot afford to lose a comprehensive and efficient service with accessibility to strong public library services. This is “local need”—Charteris Report.

Research shows that the loss of a local branch library easily leads to the loss of the library habit. Local branch libraries are the gateway to the service. They also provide community hubs accessible to the young, elderly, infirm, disadvantaged. Expecting mothers to fork out her fare to take two small children to a library is unreasonable.

The current state of the economy and less disposable income damages the chance of those affected to be able to buy books or have a computer to seek reference material.

The first hope was the introduction of The People’s Network, funded centrally. Such limited funding left future costs of IT, equipment and maintenance to the library service, therefore less money for books, staff, activities etc.

The Public Library Service Standards were a real innovation and improvements in the service were noticed. They meant that the Secretary of State could keep his finger on the pulse of statutory requirements. Cutting them, then removing them was a damaging, foolish move. Library authorities need to be held to account in accordance with the 1964 Act. They need to know what is expected of them and how they will be judged by the ultimate judge.

At present library authorities in some areas are clearly out of control. This is the responsibility of the Secretary of State who is allowing the law to be brought into disrepute.

The removal of total book stock and shut down of buildings in Brent as soon as the authority was sure of its ground was vicious. In fact Lewisham’s “closure, but not” resulting in so-called “community” libraries also saw the mass removal of book stock. Figures are available. Are we really living in 1984 and nobody has told us?

1. What can be done?

1(a) The 1964 Act requiring a “comprehensive and efficient “service for all residents must be adhered to. Where it has been abandoned in favour of a two tier service the Secretary of State must enquire and investigate more diligently and require that library authorities fulfil their statutory duties. Users and Friends should be consulted, listened to and their advice and local knowledge is a source of serious contributions to the debate.

1(b) No radical restructuring of any library service should take place unless the authority has run a considered, careful pilot programme with results that show the restructuring is appropriate. Input from local users and the position of the whole library service in that authority should be included. This simple strategy (why did the DCMS not think of it?) would take account on the Secretary of State’s duties, the responsibilities of the library authority and the necessary views of local users and tax payers.

1(c) It is truly astounding that that the incalculable value of local libraries continually has to be spelt out to those (elected local representatives, local officers, MPs, Whitehall officials) who should know better.

1(d) There were many alternatives offered by local residents to what has happened in Lewisham. These were disregarded completely by the officers in the council who never veered from their aim throughout the consultation. Such actions cause irreparable damage to local communities.

1(e) During consultation processes certain authorities (eg Lewisham, Brent) have behaved with an inflexibility and rigidity that defy belief and reality.

1(f) How much consultation took place where libraries are located near borough boundaries and therefore affect the residents of another London borough?

1(g) It is noticeable that other library authorities in London have chosen not to go the damaging routes taken, for example by Lewisham, Brent, Croydon, Lambeth, Camden, Boroughs such as Greenwich, Richmond, Bromley, Southwark, Islington, Westminster, Hillingdon are dealing with their services in a far more positive way.

1(h) Look at the Welsh experience where CyMAL has warned it will use its powers of intervention over weak performance measured against the Welsh PLSS. Yes, they still have them! Wales has a population of 3,006,400 and they take their library service seriously. The 33 Greater London boroughs have a population of 7,754,000 whose residents cannot expect the Secretary of State to oversee a service which residents of Wales can expect. Why?

2. Conclusion

2.1 The library service has been under threat regularly since the implementation of the 1964 Act. We have witnessed this during the eighties, the nineties and here we go again.

2.2 Such threats are not good for the future of the service, or to provide for a trained, professional and experienced staff. Naturally, changes are required in view of technology, progress (hopefully not meaning deterioration) and altering requirements but not these ill-thought out, ill-conceived untested manoeuvres being experimented on in certain boroughs.

2.3 If the Secretary of State does not establish his authority as empowered to do by the 1964 Act there is no telling where all this will end and how many times library authorities will do as they please, flouting the responsibilities required of them by statute.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012