Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Mr Tony Hoare and Mr Mike Bedford

1. About Us

1.1 We are trustees (Tony Hoare Chairman and Mike Bedford Treasurer) of and volunteers at Chalfont St Giles Community Library a small public library in Buckinghamshire. We are writing in our personal capacities.

1.2 We first became involved with the issue of public libraries in 2005 as library campaigners opposing the Council’s proposal to close the library in Chalfont St Giles. As individuals we are both retired professionals who have had business careers in the private sector.

1.3 Our submission provides some input from the grass roots in a smaller community ie residents concerned about their local library and in our case with some experience of delivering the public library service locally as volunteers.

2. About Chalfont St Giles Community Library

2.1 Chalfont St Giles library is a small community managed public library run and staffed entirely by local volunteers. It is a registered charity working in association with Buckinghamshire County Council to deliver the public library service in our village. The Community Library opened in January 2007 following the closure of the county run public library. Further details are available from the following web links:
www.chalfontstgiles.org.uk/shops/RunningASmallPublicLibraryWithVolunteers.pdf
www.chalfontstgiles.org.uk/shops/CommunityLibrary.htm

3. Summary of Submission

The public library service remains relevant and it should remain a statutory service paid for by the taxpayer.

Libraries need to be local—a comprehensive library service must provide demographic spread. We are concerned that the legal interpretation of the 1964 Libraries Act may allow a standard of library provision below the level that is in the public interest.

Community managed libraries should wherever possible be part of the statutory library service and be funded and supported by the library authority.

Within council organisations we wonder whether public libraries fit better within the ring fenced education portfolio.

Public Library Standards should be restored.

Reporting of public library service performance should have a higher profile and be more widely available. This applies at local, library authority and national levels.

The methodology used in library service reviews tends to overvalue larger libraries. The need for local service delivery and the community value of smaller local libraries are not valued sufficiently.

The information provided in library consultations needs to be sufficiently comprehensive for there to be meaningful dialogue between the Council and residents.

Council scrutiny committees should play a more active role when controversial changes to library services are proposed.

We think the DCMS, as part of its libraries superintendence role, should be prepared to give advice publicly to councils where library proposals are in danger of falling short of an acceptable standard.

4. Introductory Remarks

4.1 In our view:

the public library service remains a fine thing. The concept is not outdated, it must adapt and change but it deserves public support in the 21st Century;

the principles of the public library service should remain as they are ie the service should be a public statutory service paid for out of taxation; and

the requirements of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act (PLMA) should not be weakened in any way. If anything the law needs strengthening to ensure that demographic coverage is maintained. The public library service needs to be a locally available.

5. What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century?

5.1 A key sentence of the PLMA 1964 is “It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof …”

5.2 We would like to comment on “comprehensive” and “provide”. We think “comprehensive” must cover two concepts. Firstly, a comprehensive library service and stock offer including e-resources ie with sufficient range, depth, quantity and quality. Secondly, a comprehensive demographic offer so that the library service reaches all those who want to use the service. This does require geographic spread since library provision needs to be local.

5.3 The lack of clarity about what constitutes reasonable access to the service is often an area of conflict between councils and residents when library closures are being considered. National library standards would provide some ground rules for councils, residents and for the superintendence by the DCMS.

5.4 The word “provide” is also important. In our view provide means either direct provision of the service by the council or the council funds another organisation to deliver the service on its behalf. As a statutory public service the council is responsible for fully funding the service. This funding principle is built into the way government works as set out in guidance1 from HM Treasury. It is central to the relationship between the taxpayer and the State.

5.5 This principle is important when it comes to community managed libraries. If they are part of the statutory library service then they should be funded by the council. A local community can raise additional money to enhance their local library but the council must be responsible for funding the cost of the statutory service. Statutory public services should not be funded by voluntary donations.

1.Improving financial relationships with the third sector: Guidance to funders and purchasers.
HM Treasury—May 2006

The DCMS should make clear to councils the funding principles for community managed libraries.

5.6 Further, in relation to the current round of proposed closures, some councils are providing financial and other assistance to communities to set up community libraries outside of the statutory library service. There must surely be doubt about these councils long term commitment to fund these libraries if they are non-statutory. We think the DCMS should encourage councils to keep these community libraries inside the statutory service.

Council organisation—where does the public library service best fit?

5.7 We wonder whether public library services would fit better from an organisational viewpoint with schools and education rather than as a small service fighting for resource against social care, roads, waste services etc. Since public library services typically account for only 2% of council spending it is easy for the libraries budget to be excessively squeezed through the desire to fund another important council service. This would also overcome the false choice sometimes suggested that councillors must choose between “social care” and “libraries”. In our view the public are right to demand the delivery of all statutory services to a high standard. Councillors are responsible for raising the necessary funds to deliver statutory public services to a proper standard.

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

6.1 Formally this is determined by library authorities (=councils), superintended by the Secretary of State. The courts decide whether a council has complied with the law and on points of law. However we would make the following points:

Limitations of library service reviews

6.2 Council library service reviews tend to rank branch libraries by scoring their performance against a number of criteria. These criteria often value size as a positive and can distil down to “big libraries” = “high value” and “small libraries”—“low value” in determining the worth of library branches to the total Library Service. Library Services facing budget pressures then propose closing smaller libraries because the effect on total council performance is relatively small. This approach is seen as managerially efficient by councils but in our view leads to too much library resource being allocated to towns and too little to smaller communities. Little attention is paid to how the affected smaller communities will access the library service after the proposed changes.

6.3 Library service reviews often do not consider the wider benefits of a local library to a community. These benefits are very important locally, but are often not seen as the direct concern of the Library Service.

6.4 Local libraries are particularly important to those less able to travel ie children, older people and those with disabilities. The Equalities Act 2010, which applies to these groups, may potentially influence library closure decisions but this has yet to be established.

6.5 Library reviews, at least until recently, have too rarely encouraged innovation in service delivery. The traditional approach tends to be “with the budget we have and doing things the way we do we will need to close “x” small libraries and whilst the service will be worse we think the service will still be legal so this is our proposal.” Whilst council library services must be able to respond to changing levels of library usage they should be willing to innovate in order to at least maintain a sensible demographic spread of library provision. This requires genuine engagement with local residents to determine the best option for each community. In our case a community managed library with council support is meeting the local need and is cost effective for the taxpayer.

The need for library standards

6.6 The Courts interpretation of “comprehensive and efficient” appears to be that councils have substantial flexibility on the level of library services that they can deliver and flexibility is allowed to respond to changes in the level of funding available. The responsibility for determining the substance of what constitutes a “comprehensive and efficient” service is with the Secretary of State. Neither the current or previous Secretaries of State have chosen to define in any detail the meaning of “comprehensive and efficient”.

6.7 The Charteris Report is surely important. It confirms the principle that councils must make an assessment of local needs for the library service, meet the needs of adults, the general requirements of children and the particular need of deprived communities.

6.8 The lack of meaningful legally enforceable minimum standard of library provision leads us to the view that the DCMS should re-establish library standards to provide guidance on the levels of service that the general public should expect councils to provide. The standards need to support equitable delivery of library services across large and small communities.

6.9 Library standards were abolished in England in 2008 as part of a general purge of “red tape” periodically undertaken by Government. In addition the national indicator on library usage was abolished in 2010. We feel that the absence of clear minimum measurable standards of library provision has been detrimental and now makes it too easy for councils to push through library service reductions against the wishes of residents. The idea put about by Ministers that engaging with local councillors is sufficient to prevent this is over-optimistic in practice.

6.10 New library standards would need to take account of the impact of the internet and e-resources. Mechanisms to stop councils cherry picking the easier to achieve standards whilst ignoring others would also be useful.

7. The impact library closures have on local communities

7.1 Our experience is unusual in that our library was closed by the Council in 2006, reopened by village residents as a non-statutory community run public library and then in 2010 returned to being part of the statutory library service.

7.2 Fortunately our village library was only closed for just over a month at the end of 2006. There are few sights as sad as seeing a closed down public library.

7.3 Market research in our village consistently shows that maintaining the library in the village is considered important by residents. The strong local support that the library has received since opening as a community library confirms this point.

8. The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s Powers of Intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964

8.1 We can understand the Secretarial of State’s reluctance to use his power of intervention by ordering a local inquiry—it is no doubt an expensive and cumbersome option and inevitably implies questioning the proposals of an elected body which is not something to be done lightly. The Minister has described it as being the “nuclear option”. If this is the case then it seems to us that better “conventional weapons” are required to ensure that the public views are taken into account when library service changes are proposed. We make the following suggestions for improving the process:

Better reporting and disclosure of library performance to the public

8.2 As background to the local discussion on changes to library provision we think residents need to know about the performance of their local library service.

8.3 At the local community level parish councils, library friends groups and resident associations should be encouraged to take an interest in the performance of their local library. We like the approach adopted in Camden where the Camden Public Library Users Group publishes individual library branch performance information.

8.4 We think the profile of the annual Public Library Statistics (CIPFA data) should be raised. We suggest the following:

at the council level—CIPFA data should be made available to residents via a council’s website and the hardcopy UK annual statistics should be available in every central library with copies for reference and for loan. Council library service performance should be published annually on the web. Scrutiny committees should monitor the performance;

at the national level the DCMS should explain and comment publicly on the trends arising from the annual CIPFA data; and

if possible the full statistics should be made freely available electronically and published on the internet. The statistics should be available to the public 3–4 months after the end of the financial year—ie on a timetable more in line with private sector reporting. Currently reporting takes 7–12 months by which time the data is stale.

8.5 The current Public Library Statistics are prepared under an arrangement between local authorities and the trading arm of CIPFA—a charity. Whilst there is a view that this is a private arrangement and the government can’t interfere we think the current process isn’t working sufficiently in the public interest and the DCMS should take action to raise the profile of this data.

There can be a more informed local debate if library standards were available

8.6 If there were national library standards then the public could better judge the overall library performance of their council and engage with their council accordingly.

A better approach to consultation

8.7 Every consultation is different but too often the information initially provided is inadequate. In the internet age information can easily be made publicly available. Councils are often weak in providing the necessary context surrounding their library proposals. Areas that seem to be poorly disclosed include:

the council’s overall budget position and the rationale for changes in library service funding;

how the proposed library changes fit within the overall library service and its budget;

details of how the statutory library service will be provided to communities where library closures or non-statutory community managed libraries are proposed; and

discussion of the alternatives to the council’s proposals.

Council scrutiny committees can play a useful role

8.8 We think council scrutiny committees should be more proactive when there are controversial library proposals. They can provide a useful councillor cross check when library service changes are proposed. In particular they can ensure that:

the consultation information provided is sufficient to enable the public to intelligently engage on the issues being consulted on;

the council’s response to points raised in consultation is adequate;

the public can raise their concerns at a scrutiny meeting if a decision is challenged via the call-in procedure; and

the council cabinet’s response is adequate where a decision is referred back to cabinet by the scrutiny committee.

We think scrutiny committees should have the power to refer a decision to full council.

Public disclosure of the DCMS’s view of a council’s library proposals

8.9 At the moment the DCMS’s public library superintendence role is virtually all behind the scenes. The superintendence role only comes into public view when a local inquiry is ordered which is a very rare event. Would it not be better if the DCMS were to occasionally go public on its view of a council’s proposals? Where necessary this could put useful pressure on a council to think again.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012