Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Councillor Paul Lorber, Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Brent Council

Summary

Brent Council has carried out one of the most drastic programmes of library closures in the country, closing half of its libraries in the teeth of local opposition and willingness to get involved in supporting the running of libraries under threat.

In doing so the council has reversed a strategy of improving and expanding access to the library service, including by co-locating relevant local services to make the most efficient use of land and buildings.

The closures have negatively affected thousands of local library users and Brent Council is now at risk of failing to deliver a comprehensive and efficient library service.

Provision of one or two super-libraries in an area is unlikely to be enough to deliver a comprehensive service. A local library at the heart of the community is an important element in a truly comprehensive and efficient library service.

The Secretary of State’s powers of intervention are important, would benefit from greater clarity as to when they would be used, and should be used when councils fail to deliver an adequate service.

The Culture Media and Sport Committee should include in its conclusions:

a recommendation that the drastic and severe library cuts in Brent are of sufficient concern that the Secretary of State should establish an inquiry to investigate the matter;

that the Secretary of State should be prepared to use his powers to establish inquiries in other areas where drastic and severe cuts have been proposed and place the delivery of a comprehensive and efficient service at risk;

That the Secretary of State should publish minimum standards or benchmarks (similar to the former Public Library Service Standards and in line with the approach taken by the Welsh Government) which would give local authorities and residents greater clarity and certainty about the circumstances which would trigger the Secretary of State’s intervention;

That the standard of ensuring that 100% of residents in inner London and 99% of residents in outer London live within one mile of a local library remains an appropriate measure.

Introduction

1. This submission is made in a personal capacity as a former Leader of Brent Council involved in discussions about library services in Brent and also on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Group of councillors on Brent Council.

2. I was Leader of Brent Council between June 2006 and May 2010 during which time the administration that I led rejected the option of library closures and retained all 12 existing libraries. Under my leadership the council invested revenue and capital in order to provide additional library services and books and to extend opening hours.

3. I have been a councillor in Brent since May 1982. I represent Sudbury ward which includes Barham Park Library which operated in my ward between May 1952 and October 2011 when it was closed by Brent Council. I have been actively involved in the Friends of Barham Park Library and the Brent SOS [Save Our Six] Libraries campaign.

Background: Brent Library Service

4. Brent Council has carried out the most drastic library closure programme of any local authority. It is one of only three London Boroughs that have closed libraries. It has now shut a greater proportion (half) of its libraries than any other local authority. Moreover it has set its face against community involvement in any of the now closed local libraries. Unsurprisingly the savage nature of the closure programme stimulated a high-profile, passionate and well-supported campaign in favour of local libraries under the umbrella of the Brent SOS Libraries campaign.1

5. The closure programme reverses the council’s previous approach of improving accessibility, usage and satisfaction levels.

6. When I was Leader of Brent Council between 2006 and 2010 it was clear that continuing to deliver the library service in the same way that it had been delivered historically would not meet the needs of residents. Usage and loans were both in decline. Brent’s library service met only four out of the ten Public Library Service Standards.2 As a result the council looked into options, carried out research and undertook extensive public consultation in 2007.

7. On 14 January 2008 the Executive (made up of six Liberal Democrat and four Conservative Councillors) approved a 2008–12 Library Strategy.3 This recognised that community needs and customer expectations were changing and that councils’ library services needed to respond accordingly.

8. We agreed to:

(a)Retain all 12 existing Libraries—ensuring that 99.3% of Brent residents were within 1 mile of their local library and thus meeting the former Public Library Service Standard (proportion of households living within specified distance of a static library) for outer London authorities.

(b)Provide an additional £300,000 a year to expand opening hours and increasing the book stock.

(c)Modernise existing library facilities, relocate them where appropriate and provide match funding for external funding bids. Our objective was to bring additional complementary services into our libraries including children centres, adult education and advice services.

(d)Improve the marketing of the many services available at local libraries.

9. The prime objective of the Strategy was to provide the best possible library service to local people and to meet our statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service.

10. Strategy achievements included:

(a)All 12 static libraries remained open.

(b)At Kingsbury a new joint library/customer service centre was created by relocating the existing library to a location already occupied by the council’s One Stop Shop in the main shopping street. This resulted in an increase in library visits of over 50%.4

(c)Neasden Library modernised and shared with Adult Education Service.

(d)At Barham Park Library the premises were refurbished to enable a Children’s’ Centre to be located at the library. (This investment will now not fulfil its full potential as a result of closure of the library by the current administration.)

(e)At Harlesden Library lottery funding assisted the development of a joint library/learning centre with Brent Adult and Community Education Service.

(f)Plans for new Civic Centre Library (replacing an outdated Town Hall library) are underway.

(g)Opening hours were standardised to make more sense for library users and extended.

(h)Restructure and efficiencies saved £250,000 a year.

11. In February 2011 Brent Council, under a new Labour administration, agreed a budget which reversed many of these achievements. A formal consultation attracted over 1,500 responses (82% of which opposed the council’s plans). This is a much bigger number of responses than is usual for a council consultation and indicates the level of public interest and concern generated by the proposals.

12. Following the consultation Brent Council’s Executive voted to implement the closure of six libraries without amending the original proposals. The actual closure of the six libraries was postponed until October 2011 because of legal action taken by library campaigners. On the afternoon of the court judgement the council shut the six libraries without warning and boarded all but one up. The library buildings remain closed and largely empty.

13. Redundancy payments paid as a consequence of the closures total £258,411.89. The council has also spent over £154,837.04 on legal costs defending its decision.

Inquiry issue 1: What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century?

14. Despite technological, cultural, demographic and economic changes since 1964 the essence of a comprehensive and efficient library service has not changed.

15. A comprehensive library service is one which serves all sections of the community, whether defined geographically (libraries must serve communities in all parts of the authority’s area), by age (because children, young people, those of working age and older people have overlapping but different needs) or by characteristics such as race and disability.

16. The definition of comprehensive must take account of accessibility. Unless a library is easily accessible especially for young accompanied children, older youngsters coming on their own or older people there is effectively NO library service for most people: these groups make up a very high proportion of regular library users. These groups require “regular” access to their local library and not the occasional visit to a more distant one.

17. For this reason in Brent we adopted the one mile from a library standard given the substantial number of parents who walk with their young children to use their local library and in line with the then current Public Library Service Standard. It also enables older youngsters to visit on their own with the knowledge that they are a short distance from home. The subsequent administration downgraded this to 1.5 miles from a library (and failed to meet even this objective).

18. The map above5 shows the effect of the six library closures. The diamonds represt the six remaining libraries. Prior to the closures the only areas more than one mile away from one of the council’s libraries were those areas shaded in light grey. These are mainly industrial and more sparsely populated areas. The light grey areas cover just 0.7% of the borough’s residents. The dark grey area are the areas currently more than one mile away from a library, including significant areas of Sudbury, North Wembley, Kenton, Northwick Park, Neasden and Dollis Hill.

19. Responses to the Brent libraries consultation revealed that 90% of respondents walked to the library as one of their methods of travel. This figure highlights the importance of local provision.

20. Other characteristics of a comprehensive service include:

(a)opening hours that respond to the requirements of the local community;

(b)flexible uses which meet local community needs and act as a centre for community activities;

(c)local libraries that are well stocked with up to date books, have access to a wider book stock, with adequate PC access and modern facilities providing other shared services;

(d)active involvement of properly qualified librarians and knowledgeable staff;

(e)libraries that provides adequate local study and reading space.

21. This approach reinforces the fact that a provision of one or two mega-libraries in an area is unlikely to be enough to deliver a comprehensive service. A local library at the heart of the community is an important element in a truly comprehensive and efficient library service.

Inquiry issue 2: The extent to which planned (actual in the case of Brent) closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report?

22. The closure of half of Brent’s libraries has deprived tens of thousands of Brent residents of a local library service. Emerging evidence suggests that many users of closed libraries have ceased being library users, or use libraries more infrequently.

23. One former Preston Library user shared her experience:

I cannot get to the Town Hall or Kingsbury Libraries so easily. The Town Hall library is a 48 minute return walk. This figure does not include time in the library. I could use a bus which will cost me £2.60 return on an Oyster Card. I also have a back problem which limits the amount I can carry. The same journey time, carriage problems and transport costs apply to Kingsbury Plus Library…

Preston Road Library was a ten minute walk away. I would pop books into my shopping trolley and shlap [sic] them to the library and shop on the way back. There is no free library car park in Kingsbury Library Plus. Does the “Plus” mean plus travel time and plus transport costs?6

24. Prior to the closure decision being taken the Brent Youth Parliament also set out its concerns about the effect of library closures on local young people:

BYP consists of 72 elected members who represent the 72,000 young people…cuts to the libraries should be reconsidered, as they will have a detrimental effect on Brent’s educational standards and the young people you represent. Around 50% of the libraries’ regular users are young people aged 19 and under—the group that has suffered most from central government cuts already. The sudden withdrawal of these services will hit this vulnerable group at a time when it is most needed…Brent Town Hall, one of the libraries set to stay open, has seen overflow of study spaces for many years now. It is not acceptable to see young people studying on the stairs of the Town Hall. Barham Park has been packed throughout the Easter break with students and young people of all ages. The impact on young people is going to be very substantial…7

25. There were 62,120 members of the six affected Brent libraries prior to closure.

Library

Registered members
(pre-closures)

Barham

11,644

Cricklewood

6,977

Kensal Rise

9,136

Neasden

11,562

Preston

15,014

Tokyngton

7,787

26. In the case of Barham Library 3,800 of the registered members were identified as “active” users of whom around 50% were aged under 19. The proportions were very similar for the other five libraries. This means that over 20,000 active users (including over 10,000 active users under 19 years of age) have been deprived of their local library as a result of the six closures.

Inquiry issue 3: The impact of library closures on local communities

27. The library closures in Brent have affected

(a)Young people, notably at exam time: during this time local libraries are full of young people revising for their exams. Libraries offer the space for the right environment where youngsters can study by themselves or with their friends especially for young people in overcrowded or disrupted home environments. The loss of study spaces is a blow for young people, especially as further study spaces will be lost when Willesden Green library closes later this year for 18 months for refurbishment, leaving Brent with just five open libraries. The group hardest hit by the closures are young people under the age of 19, who represented half of the active users of the closed libraries.

(b)Residents without internet access at home or work: libraries provide PC access to those without access to their own PC or the internet. Closed libraries such as Barham, Preston, Tokyngton or Neasden were extensively used by new arrivals into the UK for their research or helping them with learning English.

(c)Older people: the newspaper reading sections are always full of older people for whom a library represents a place to go. In the case of Barham the Park presents an additional attraction and is accessible by walking to hundreds of older people.

(d)Parents of very young children now need to travel long distances to get to the nearest local library and are less likely to take advantage of the services provided.

(e)Older youngsters have to travel much further too and they have been deprived of substantial after school study space.

(f)Three out of the six closed libraries—Barham, Preston and Tokyngton—served large Asian communities some of them with special requirements. The closures have disproportionately impacted on this community group.

(g)Local schools have been deprived of convenient local library venues for regular educational school trips.

28. In the case of Barham the future of the Children Centre has been put at risk.

29. Brent Council has decided to provide an “elitist” library service and turned its back on tens of thousands of actual and potential library users.

30. By choosing to adopt the “maximum impact” option of closure for half of Brent’s libraries Brent Council neglected opportunities for delivering efficiency savings such as sharing services with other local authorities, pooling budgets, working in partnership with volunteers and voluntary organisations, making better use of buildings by co-locating services and in some circumstances making use of charitable trusts.

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

31. The power to hold an independent Inquiry is an important tool which should provide confidence that local residents can access an adequate local library service.

32. In the case of Brent Council the strongly held view is that the Brent decision was predetermined and that the so called consultation exercise conducted by the Council was a sham. There is clear evidence that vulnerable groups of people in Brent are being deprived of a library service as a result of the decision to close six libraries. Local people have had to resort to a Court challenge when they should have been able to expect the Secretary of State to ensure their concerns were properly considered.

33. The Secretary of State has so far refused to give a hearing to local residents concerned about library closures. This is notwithstanding that, in the case of other library closure campaigns, his team has met with both the Council in question and campaigners. In the case of Brent, only meetings with council officers have been held and the content of these meetings has not been disclosed.

34. The power of intervention is there. What seems to be lacking is the political will to take action which should have been triggered as soon a local Council proposed to close half its local libraries thus threatening the provision of a comprehensive and efficient service.

Conclusion

35. The drastic and severe library cuts in Brent are of sufficient concern that the Secretary of State should establish an inquiry to investigate the matter.

36. The Secretary of State should be prepared to use his powers to establish inquiries in other areas where drastic and severe cuts have been proposed and place the delivery of a comprehensive and efficient service at risk.

37. There is also a case for publishing minimum standards (perhaps drawing on the work carried out to develop the former Public Library Service Standards and in line with the approach taken by the Welsh Government) which would give local authorities and residents greater clarity and certainty about the circumstances which would trigger the Secretary of State’s intervention;

38. The objective of ensuring that 100% of residents in inner London and 99% of residents in outer London live within one mile of a local library remains an appropriate.

39. Many councils still have scope to run library services more efficiently without severely adversely affecting the service provided to local residents by sharing services with other local authorities, pooling budgets, working in partnership with volunteers and voluntary organisations, making better use of buildings by co-locating services and in some circumstances making use of charitable trusts.

January 2012

1 See www.brentsoslibraries.org.uk/sos/

2 See http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.culture.gov.uk/reference_library/publications/3662.aspx/

3 See Brent Council Library Strategy 2008-2012 at
http://democracy.brent.gov.uk/celistdocuments.aspx?MID=538&DF=14%2f01%2f2008&A=1&R=0&F=embed$Library%20Strategy%202008-2012.htm.

4 Libraries Transformation Project: Report from the Director of Environment and Neighbourhood Services to the Executive (Brent Council, 11 April 2011).

5 Not printed.

6 http://brentlibraries.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/now-we-are-preston-library-minus/

7 Brent Youth Parliament’s Recommendations to Overview and Scrutiny.

Prepared 5th November 2012