Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Lechlade Town Council Library Working Group

1. We are responding to the Culture Media and Sport Committee investigation, because we are a good example of a cause where the threat of the library closure has motivated the community to respond with a well argued case to maintain the existing service. It has been supported by public meetings, petitions and the highest community response in Gloucestershire (17%) to the consultation on the published proposals. Lechlade, together with many other towns in Gloucestershire, supported the Public Interest Lawyers in their successful challenge in the High Court to the Gloucestershire County Council’s (GCC) proposals to cease a county managed library service in a number of locations. We are continuing to put our case to GCC for maintaining a county managed library service in Lechlade, with some level of community support if required; however, the outcome is far from certain.

Background

2. Lechlade is a market town on the eastern rural border of Gloucestershire and adjacent to Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. The town has had a county managed library service for over 20 years. Lechlade is poorly served by public transport connections with buses running at two hourly intervals at best. It is 25 minutes away by car from the nearest main library in Cirencester.

A Well-supported Library providing Essential Community Services

3. The existing library is well supported. Utilisation, as measured by the proportion of library visits to catchment population, is above the average for Gloucestershire County libraries, excluding main libraries. The library is also well used to support children’s educational activities, reading groups for the elderly, and information to all residents and visitors; it serves as a valuable focus of the Town’s activities. Internet access, and support in using this facility, is also provided; this is a vital facility as services such as bus passes and registering for sheltered housing are now only available on line. Internet access is also the only local opportunity for acquiring information for job seekers, health information and consumer advice as we have no job centre, hospital nor Citizens Advice Bureau locally. The Lechlade library is located in the centre of the town with easy access and adjacent free parking. It is at the heart of the community. The library is the only amenity provided by GCC and, if that goes, the county will have no representation in this important market town.

Proposals and Rationale from Gloucestershire County Council

4. Faced with the need to reduce its budget by £108 million over four years, in November 2010 the GCC carried out a consultation; though it involved less than 2% of the County’s population. They then published their intention to cut the libraries’ budget by £4 million and to achieve this by closing up to 10 libraries and withdrawing the mobile library service completely.

5. The GCC assumed that it could meet the provisions of the Libraries and Museum’s Act 1964 (the 1964 Act) by offering communities the chance to take on and run the libraries themselves.

6. The crucial criterion1 for the location of the main libraries was that no community should be more than 20 minutes from a main library. For Lechlade the nearest library is Cirencester which is a 25 minute drive2 away; there is also the time and cost of parking to be considered. Buses run at intervals of at least two hours and do not stop near the library. Conversely, Lechlade library is located in the Market Place with free parking and a local bus stop.

7. A second criterion was the usage of the library. However, use per head of catchment population was not factored into the analysis. The utilisation of the Lechlade library is higher than the average use for libraries throughout Gloucestershire, excepting the Main Libraries.

8. A third criterion was stated to be the presence of children’s centres. We comment above on the utilisation of the library by regular children’s groups and ask whether this has been taken into account in the evaluation. Investments in new buildings was a factor in the evaluation but we questioned whether sunk costs should be included in any evaluation.

9. The GCC proposed that the community in Lechlade should operate the library. While the town was keen to maintain a library, a community-run facility was not regarded as meeting the GCC obligations under the 1964 Act. This was in part, because the County would not offer any new books or other services to the community, but also, most importantly, because we believed that an effective library needed qualified, professional library support.

The Judicial Review

10. The GCC proposals for library closures were challenged at a Judicial Review held in September 2011. The main outcome was that GCC was judged to have failed to undertake a proper Equalities Impact Assessment. The seriousness was highlighted by the judge awarding total costs against GCC.

11. GCC is currently developing new plans for the library service which will be published later in January 2012. To what extent the plans for Lechlade will change and whether a library service consistent with the 1964 Act will be provided in the future is uncertain.

Response to the Specific Issues identified by the Committee

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

12. “Comprehensive” implies a full range of services. While new technologies have brought a revolution in the way we communicate and obtain information, they have not yet replaced the need for a wide range of good quality books. In addition libraries provide many other services including large print books, audio books, books on prescription (advice on issues such as alcoholism and obesity), local information, support and advice. Access to new technology, and the support to use it, is often only available via the library; this is especially true for vulnerable groups such as older people, the disabled and those on low incomes. With the increasing focus on saving costs by making services, such as bus passes and sheltered accommodation, available only on-line, local government is increasing the dependency of these groups on their local library.

13. Older people are especially dependent on the library and Lechlade is in the top third of the county for older people, with 20% of the local population over the age of 65. GCC will discriminate against this group by taking away the current library service on which they depend for books, especially large print and audio books, and services including bus passes and sheltered accommodation.

14. Children are also dependent on the library and Lechlade is also in the top quartile for the County, with 18% of the population under the age of 14. Access to books is essential in developing and maintaining the literacy levels of this group. The Summer Reading Programme is hugely popular with local school children and was cited in the OFSTED report for the local St Lawrence Primary school as a key means of ensuring that the children continue to read through the Summer Holidays, and thus keep up their reading standard and their enthusiasm for reading. Access to the internet is also increasingly an expected part of learning and the library offers this facility. By withdrawing support from vulnerable groups they will be disadvantaged, when compared to their peers in other parts of the County.

15. For other disadvantaged groups such as the disabled, those on low incomes and the unemployed the library provides access to learning, newspapers and work opportunities. Information is also available on health issues, finance and other aspects of everyday living.

16. “Comprehensive” also implies that the service should be readily accessible to the community. The reality is that for many of the more vulnerable groups in our rural community journeys to libraries outside the town will simply not be an option. Buses run infrequently, don’t stop near the library nor are they suitable for wheelchair users. Journey times to the nearest main library would involve at least a 50 minute round trip by car and significantly more on the bus.

17. An “efficient” library service should make best use of limited resources. In assessing efficiencies, both the “internal” costs of GCC and the “external” direct, social and environmental costs need to be considered. For example the additional direct and carbon costs of increased journeys to a remote library should be considered. Our view is that a full disclosure of all costs should be made so that the costs and benefits of the library service can be seen and tested.

18. We are aware that a number of models for operating libraries have been identified across the country. In the London borough of Merton we understand that they have achieved greater levels of efficiency without closing a single library and at the same time actually increased their hours of operation. Closer to home Oxfordshire have used volunteer resources to reduce staff costs and Wiltshire have opted to reduce hours across a number of libraries rather than closing any. We would like to see these ideas being shared more widely, so that all local councils can make the savings they need without withdrawing what we believe to be essential local services. We ourselves have offered to support GCC with some community provision through the supply of resources—volunteer labour and local funding—provided that the management of the facility remains with GCC and the services it provides continue to meet the requirements of the Act.

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

19. Although we are not qualified to comment on the legal requirements of the 1964 Act, we would suggest that this may have been made at a time when there was less awareness of the needs of the young, the elderly and vulnerable people. In addition, as outlined above, we feel that libraries continue to provide an essential service and the planned closures would prevent the core requirements of a “comprehensive and efficient library service” to be met. Libraries will need to evolve and changes will need to be made, but these changes should be undertaken in a constructive way ensuring that the core service continues to be available to those who need it most.

The impact library closures have on local communities

20. The closure of the library in Lechlade would be devastating to the community. The Town has a significant elderly population, higher than two thirds of the County wards. Lechlade also has a significant population of children, the top quartile of the County. Taken together these groups put us in the top quartile of vulnerable age groups in the county. It cannot be acceptable that such a large population be penalised by having an essential service withdrawn without an equitable alternative. The nearest main library in Cirencester will be more than 25 minutes away by car and the minimum parking fee is £1.30 per hour—an indirect cost of using the library there. Buses run at two hourly intervals and the bus stop is a good 10 minute walk from the library—a long way for a parent with small children or an elderly person to carry heavy books. Fairford, which will have a library express, is nearer, but it is on the same infrequent bus route, the bus stop is ½ mile from the library and car parking, although free, is very limited.

21. Libraries are crucial to the vitality of rural areas such as Lechlade. The library provides essential resources such as books, large print books, audio books, DVDs, electricity monitors, access to the internet, photocopying, local maps and all sorts of useful information. The library also supplies “books on prescription” self-help books on sensitive issues such as alcoholism and obesity which are recommended to patients by the local Medical Practice.

22. Lechlade library is much more than just a library. Situated in the heart of the town it acts as a local meeting place and an information point for both local people and visitors to the town. The local paper is provided to keep people up to date on events in the community and includes important information such as Planning Notices and Licence Applications. The Town’s Diary contains all of the key events in the community enabling good planning of events as well as good attendance. Posters are regularly displayed in the windows promoting events and information of relevance to the community. The photocopier is relied on by the many local businesses that cannot afford to own their own.

23. The library also puts on events for numerous groups. Events for children run on a weekly basis and the social networking this provides for the parents and grandparents, as well as the educational stimulation for the children, is greatly valued; attendance at these sessions is proof of their worth. Workshops including practical demonstrations of local crafts such as weaving and talks on local history such as the Roman involvement in the town are arranged on a monthly basis. The Church Youth Group uses the library for their meetings. Local groups use the window to advertise their group activities and gain additional members.

24. The library building in Lechlade is a key feature in the town’s Market Place, which is at the heart of a conservation area and is one of the last two public buildings in what was traditionally a retail area. Without the library, the numbers of residents and visitors drawn to the town centre will be reduced. The loss of the library would mean that there was no longer any visible representation of GCC services in the town.

25. The community reaction to the original GCC proposals, expressed at two well-attended public meetings and two petitions—one representing one third of the population—was the strong belief that the County library should be maintained in Lechlade. Only if this primary objective couldn’t be achieved, would the town consider a community library; even then it would request was that this continue to be managed GCC. The Town Council recognised this strong view and has sought to negotiate possible options with GCC to maintain a library service.

26. The reluctance to take on a community library reflects the fact that Lechlade has already embraced the “Big Society” in many ways, and there is, therefore, a limit to the level of voluntary resources that may be available to run a community library. In the absence of support from the County, the people of Lechlade already run their own Day Centre and Community transport. Jolly Tots and Little Learners provide pre-school support. The Friends of Fairford hospital provides patient transport services. Funds are raised to enable Prospect Hospice to provide in and out patient care for the terminally ill in our community and additional nurses for our local medical practice. Volunteers to act as First Responders are provided. The town also has an active Emergency Response and Flood action team, which supplements the work of the Environment Agency and Highways. As a community, Lechlade already undertakes many of the roles traditionally provided by the County.

27. A community-run library, while providing some level of service, is not considered a suitable replacement for a professionally managed service. This view is supported by the Judicial Review which found that the community library did not satisfy the County’s statutory obligation. In addition it would discriminate against local residents as they would in effect be paying twice for a library service: they would still make the same contribution to the county’s library service through their council tax, whilst also having to fund their own library.

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

28. We have little experience to judge how effective the Secretary of State’s powers are under the Act. We had written to the Secretary of State on 7 March 2011 to ask him to intervene on the GCC proposals. While our letter was acknowledged, we have not received any ruling. We of course welcome this inquiry, but without the judicial review, associated injunctions and final judgement it may have been a case of “too little, too late” for libraries such as ours.

29. Although we supported the legal action that resulted in the judicial review, we were disappointed to have to resort to legal action to highlight the inadequacies of the plans being put forward by the County. It is legitimate to wonder, therefore, whether, had the Secretary of State had the powers to act, or to act more swiftly, this action and the associated costs could have been avoided.

30. We hope that the Secretary of State has the powers to ensure that best practice in delivering both comprehensive and efficient library services be shared nationally, so that all communities could benefit from improved and enhanced services rather than the cuts that were being proposed.

31. We also hope that the Secretary of State could intervene to ensure that future cuts in government funding at national level are made in such a way that essential services, such as libraries, are not put at risk.

Summary

32. We believe that GCC has a statutory responsibility to support vulnerable groups such as the old and the young. The combined statistics for these older and younger populations in Lechlade put the town in the top quartile for the County. However, the proposed closure of the town’s library will hit these two groups the hardest. This proposed closure, combined with the withdrawal of county funding for the Youth Service and School Transport, will be a body blow to one of the county’s most outlying townships.

33. Our experience in Lechlade is that there is a strong demand from the community to maintain a service under the 1964 Act and in particular to meet the specific demands of the young and elderly people and those with special needs. From our discussions with other communities, we have ascertained that this is a common view.

34. We welcome your review of the 1964 Act which is nearly 50 years old, to see whether it reflects the present, inclusive needs of all the communities which rely on library services and that the meanings of “comprehensive” and “efficient” are clearly defined.

35. We would hope that your intervention could secure a realistic future for libraries as a key service for local communities particularly those in rural areas where the library plays such a significant role in the community.

January 2012

1 Letter 5 January 2011 (sic) from GCC Library Services Manager to Lechlade Town Clerk in response to her letter on 14 December 2010 defines the overriding factor being that the geographical spread of libraries provides reasonable travel time for county residents. The definition of override is to take precedence over all other factors.

2 RAC Route finder.

Prepared 5th November 2012