Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Watchet Library Friends Group

Executive Summary

Watchet Library Friends (WLF) supported the successful legal challenge mounted by Friends of Somerset Libraries (FOSL) to the decisions by Somerset County Council (SCC) to withdraw funding from 11 libraries in Somerset.

WLF support the co-location of services in consultation with the community.

WLF believe the planned library closures and the substitution by community libraries mean that SCC will fail to provide a Comprehensive and Efficient library service, especially to elderly, disabled, vulnerable and young people within our community.

WLF believe the impact on communities where a library closes is catastrophic for all people, whether in a disadvantaged category or not and people of all ages.

WLF believe the Secretary of State (SOS) has completely failed to exercise his powers under the 1964 act effectively.

1. Introduction

1.1 Watchet is a community of around 4,000 people on the north coast of Somerset. It has a Town Council (WTC) and is provided with services by West Somerset District Council (WSC) and Somerset County Council (SCC) who is the library authority. The community was a trading port for many hundreds of years and following its closure in the late twentieth century, has struggled to survive economically.

1.2 WLF is a community group set up following an initiative by Watchet Town Council who were distressed to learn in January 2011 that SCC were proposing to cease funding Watchet library with effect from 1 October 2011. WLF adopted a constitution using the Charities Commission model for small societies, opened a bank account and acted as banker for the raising of the Community Contribution demanded by the Legal Services Commission to allow the legal challenge to the decisions made by SCC to proceed as detailed in the Friends of Somerset Libraries (FOSL) submission.

1.3 WLF have supported the legal action against SCC led by FOSL and wish to be associated with submissions made to the Select Committee on their behalf. This submission has been drawn up by Peter Murphy as chair of WLF in consultation with the WLF committee. I am a retired teacher, an elected member of WTC and WSC.

2. A comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century

2.1 WLF recognise that library buildings devoted exclusively to library services are less sustainable in the digital age. Nevertheless, we believe that the library in a community is an important symbol of a civilised society being a point of service delivery of education and enlightenment to all in the community who wish to make use of such services.

2.2 The network of buildings has developed in a different information age but they broadly exist in settlements of over 4,000 people and fulfil a community function in such settlements. A comprehensive provision has a geographical component with which this assists. Comprehensive provision also relates to the range of services provided by libraries in addition to books such DVDs, periodicals, internet access, reference materials etc.

2.3 Library services in a settlement can be delivered alongside other functions in order to maximise the use of community facilities. An evaluation of the feasibility of this is needed in a cross local authority approach—in Somerset, some services are delivered at County level, others at District Council level and others by parishes and volunteers. As long as professional librarian input in a community is maintained, then volunteers and other service delivery can be combined under the same roof. This contributes to the efficient provision of services.

2.4 The Stoate family who owned a mill in the town, paid for the purchase of the old lifeboat house and for it to be converted into a library which was leased to SCC to run as a library in 1953. The family gave the building to Watchet Urban District Council (WUDC) to look after on behalf of the citizens of Watchet. In 1974, the ownership of the building passed to WSC as WUDC ceased to exist. In 2011, Watchet Town Council (WTC) commenced negotiations with WSC to transfer the building back to the town. The intention is to secure the future of the building as a library and a community building in line with the Stoate family’s original intention. The son of the benefactor accompanied FOSL campaigners to the judicial review hearing to show his support for the cause.

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

3.1 The announcement by SCC of the cessation of funding of Watchet library gave the community eight months to respond before the axe fell. SCC proposed to “hand the library to the community to run”. SCC did not hold a meeting to discuss this in Watchet but chose to hold a meeting in a community over two miles away whose library was not due to close. Watchet Town Council called a meeting to allow residents to put their views to SCC councillors and officers. The meeting was totally against the closure and there was little interest to run the library but some were prepared to volunteer to help SCC in running the library if they continued to fund it.

3.2 Watchet is a community with a strong community spirit. Many organisations exist which are supported and run by volunteers. There is a successful Carnival and Music Festival in August run by a Community Interest Company in the town. They hold a programme of fund raising events during the year towards the costs. A Kids festival, a Summertime festival, a Community Bookshop, two museums, the Phoenix Centre (providing a range of services to young and old), two brass bands, Sea Scouts (RN Recognised), Guides, Coastguard service are amongst the activities run by volunteers in the town. This is in addition to a whole range of clubs and societies run by volunteers which provide entertainment and enrichment for residents such as a Museum Society, Conservation Society, Mothers’ club, boxing club etc.

3.3 There was a recognition by Watchet people that library services were provided from Council Tax paid to SCC and that WTC should not be seeking to raise tax from residents to run the library as this was already considered paid for by tax to SCC. At the time of the SCC consultation, the WTC precept for the following year was already set and SCC were told that WTC could not take on the £20,000 cost even if they had wanted to. There was a recognition that voluntary effort should not replace library services provided by professional staff but could supplement it.

3.4 Following the town meeting, there was a week before the SCC meeting to approve the cut to the library services budget. Over 500 signatures were collected to a petition in Watchet calling on SCC to think again over the planned cuts which would cause the closure of Watchet library. At the SCC meeting, there was considerable public participation through speeches and petitions amounting to over 35,000 signatures against the library budget cuts but SCC still agreed them.

3.5 WLF believe that the SCC cuts would mean the service was not compatible with the 1964 Act to provide a Comprehensive and Efficient service and chose to support the legal challenge. The result was that SCC were found to have breeched their statutory duties under Equalities legislation and the cuts were quashed. The judge was not asked to rule if the service did meet the requirements of the 1964 Act, noting that the SOS had a reserve power to make that judgment.

4. The impact library closures have on local communities

4.1 The library in Watchet is a valued community resource. SCC figures show that over the last five years, the use of Watchet library has increased by 49% when the average figure in Somerset is a reduction in visitors of over 20%. The nearest other library is in the community of Williton which is over two miles away. Although linked by a reasonable bus service, those without passes will incur bus fares for themselves and any accompanying children if they wish to visit the library. Those with mobility issues will find greater difficulty in visiting the library. The local primary school will find it much more difficult to visit the library as they cannot just walk the children down into the town. All who wish to visit the library will have to devote more time to achieve that wish. Many more car journeys will take place resulting in increased traffic congestion with increased cost and carbon footprint. Many individual witness statements from disadvantaged members of our community were submitted as evidence in the legal action.

4.2 Watchet is a deprived community:

In Watchet/Williton, from West Somerset Joint Needs Assessment, NHS Somerset & Somerset County Council—October 2010 the following are of interest, comparing in brackets with Somerset as a whole:

35% Problem with people not treating each other with respect & consideration (26%).

3.2% JSA claimants (2.4%), 0.4% claiming LSA for more than a year (0.1%).

28.1 Index of multiple deprivation (16).

28.0 Deprivation scores in education & training (18.3).

34% Under 16s in poverty (16%).

Watchet falls within the top 40% of most deprived areas in the country.

Watchet features in the top 20% quintile in the employment domain in 2010.

When LSOA data is combined to ward level, Watchet is amongst the top 10 of most deprived wards in Somerset.

In addition to having a higher level of overall deprivation compared to some parts of Somerset, compared to other seaside towns of a similar size in England, Watchet’s overall rank (in 2007) was also poor: only Sutton on Sea, Withernsea, Chapel St Leonards and Mablethorpe had a lower ranking than Watchet. See England’s Smaller Seaside Towns: a benchmark study, CLG, 2011.

The local first school has 25% pupils eligible for free school meals, 32% of pupils are on the SEN register.

4.3 “The Library is about a five minute walk from my house. I use the Library for books; especially audio books. I am on Income Support, and am dyslexic, and I really enjoy listening to audio books. I find it easier to remember books if I hear books, rather than read them. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and it doesn’t cost anything. I also use the Library for internet access. Although I have internet access at home, because I live in a rural area, the line is often down and my internet is cut off. I use the internet for online banking, sending emails, and sometimes selling on Ebay.

I know a lot of the elderly people use the Library. They read, listen to DVDs and CDs, and use it for the internet. They are also able to order larger print books.

In addition to visiting the Library myself, I often take friends’ children to the Library. The children range from five to 13 years of age, and they primarily go for the books and internet access. Some of the children have learning difficulties, so they find the Library particularly useful. Others find the variety of books on offer a welcome break from school reading. The children’s area is in an upstairs balcony, and the children are able to run around and have social contact in a safe environment.

If Watchet Library were to close, the closest library would be Williton. Williton can’t be walked to by the elderly, or by those with children. It is unlikely that anyone would make this walk in the winter time. The only other way for people like me to get to Williton is by bus, but since we have some of the highest bus fares in the country, people on benefits such as myself, or the elderly and disabled, would be unable to make this journey. My library access would be effectively cut off.”
Rebecca Hird, extract from witness statement , successful plaintiff in judicial review case v. SCC

4.4 “All the members of the Phoenix are shocked to learn that the Library is to close in October if no solution to the cut-backs is found. We are all volunteers. We have more than 100 members and the elderly and the younger people love to meet and the library is just the place for them to do so—then into the Phoenix for coffee! There is no other similar facility in Watchet. We run three Day Clubs—Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday each week. Many members bring themselves along to the Phoenix and library in their wheelchairs, motorised buggies, or strollers, and for those who can’t, we can arrange voluntary transport of people from their homes to enjoy the day at the Phoenix Centre. At the Phoenix Centre we are able to change library books for these people or if they are able, maybe to go into the library and choose their own. If the Library closes, they would not be able to access a library facility in Watchet, and the majority could not travel to a library in a different town.”
Jean Howe, MBE, extract from witness statement, in successful judicial review case v. SCC

4.5 “I am 15 years of age. I have lived in Watchet, Somerset, for 10 years. I moved here when I was five years old, and have been a regular user of the library for the last nine years. When I was younger my parents would take me to Watchet library and I’d sit in the kids section reading for hours. It was an important part of my childhood because it helped develop my reading and make new friends. As I’ve grown older, coming to Watchet library has developed my interest in literature and my confidence. The library itself is not just a place for learning new things but the only proper communal place in our town. We’ve never had a community hall in Watchet and I think it’s important to have a place where people of all ages can meet each other.”
Meredith Gray, extract from witness statement, in successful judicial review case v. SCC

4.6 “I am an 85 year old great grandmother, and have been a library member ever since I could first read. I first lived in Watchet in 1954 when my children were growing up. We used the library as a family, with the Brownies when I was Brown Owl, and when I founded the Red Cross section in the town, along with others. I returned to live in Watchet in 2009 and immediately rejoined the library. As a disabled person with both mobility and sight impairment (I cannot drive), I find our local library, its location, and facilities invaluable. Without assistance, I will be unable to travel to Williton to use the facilities there. There are many others like me. Watchet Library easy for me to access independently, which is important for the elderly and disabled, providing large print, talking books, cds and computer facilities such as the internet. I do not have a computer myself. It also enables me to meet many different social groups: the elderly, young people, mothers, and families. The library is adjacent to our Phoenix club for the elderly on the Esplanade, and in the absence of a community hall in Watchet the library acts as a common meeting ground for all the diverse groups.”
Pat Wilks, extract from witness statement, in successful judicial review case v. SCC

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

5.1 Members of WLF have written to SOS to ask him to exercise his powers under the Act but he has failed to do so. He took a very long time to reply and when he did so, he assured us he was monitoring the situation. He met SCC officers in March in London but despite an FOI request made by one of our members, nothing has been released into the public domain to enable us to judge whether he has exercised his powers effectively. Perhaps you can encourage greater transparency in government and assess the extent to which SOS has exercised his powers under the 1964 Act.

5.2 The Charteris Report into planned closures of libraries in the Wirral was the last time the SOS visibly exercised this power. The result of this was that the council pulled back from making the library cuts it had intended. There have been many councils in 2011 which have been considering library service cuts. The SOS has failed to give a lead by promoting a clear view of what a Comprehensive and Efficient library service might look like in the 21st century and whether planned cuts fall short of doing so.

6. Recommendations to the Select Committee

I would respectfully request that the committee consider the following recommendations:

6.1 Call for a Public Enquiry into the library service to examine what constitutes a Comprehensive and Efficient service in the 21st century. This, I suggest is necessary because of the perceived inaction by SOS.

6.2 Such an enquiry to examine planned cuts in areas where there has been organised opposition such as Somerset to assess if the provision is a Comprehensive and Efficient service in the 21st century. This, I suggest is necessary because of the perceived inaction by SOS.

6.3 Such an enquiry to be announced by the SOS to include a direction (if possible) to councils considering substantial branch closures to freeze any action pending the result of the Public Enquiry. This I believe is necessary to prevent further expensive legal action which would follow such decisions being progressed.

6.4 To recommend that councils reviewing their library service engage with local and countywide groups who represent library users at an early stage. In Somerset, SCC have communicated with local communities and have been reluctant to engage with FOSL (continuing).

6.5 To consider whether the actions of the Legal Services Commission in the Somerset legal challenge were proper as they made the access to justice much more difficult, and to recommend a solution. Submission by John Irven informs.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012