Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Upper Norwood Library Campaign

When in Opposition, MP Ed Vaisey visited Upper Norwood Joint Library at the invitation of the then local Lambeth councillors. He is recorded as having been impressed.

But, as noted elsewhere and in a letter submitted to him and signed, by among others the Upper Norwood Library Campaign, he is implored to act to save our library services.

The UNLC welcomes this Select Committee and hopes for greater pro-activity from Government than has recently been the case.

We have read and support the submission by The Library Campaign, the national campaigning body after which our local-based group is named.

Such is the quality and value for money of the Upper Norwood Joint Library service that the Upper Norwood Library Campaign would like to suggest that its essential features be considered for adoption by library services nationwide, thus proposing a practical solution to the expenditure reduction dilemma faced by many local authorities and, in the process, prevent cuts to library services. Being responsive to local needs, it has very high user satisfaction.

Please consider this submission under “other matters” since, for example, any library closure has a huge impact on the community it serves, and the UNJL library is a role model for others to follow.

Please read on: more supporting documentation can be provided if required.

History of the Upper Norwood Library, London SE19

1. The Upper Norwood Joint Library (UNJL) has served the Upper Norwood cross-borough community in South London since 1900 and, from inception, the London boroughs of Lambeth and Croydon have been jointly funders. It is a library authority operating separately from the two funding boroughs, as covered under the provisions of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. Library users in Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood regard the UNJL as a vital local amenity in an area with very little in the way of public buildings. The Joint Library plays an indispensable role in Lambeth and Croydon Council fulfilment of their statutory responsibility to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. Many residents of local wards and further afield rely heavily upon it.

2. The UNJL has strong links with the local community and an extensive outreach programme encompassing local organisations, schools, youth and children’s groups. Annual programmes of special events and activities cater for all ages and interests. Regular reading and creative writing groups for adults, sessions for parents and children, imaginative and informative events for local residents (Crystal Palace Park and Read promotions, Local History Festivals and Writers’ Days to name a few), and two days of celebrations for the 110th anniversary attended by hundreds of people, all illustrate the Library’s ability to deliver vital information while meeting educational, cultural and recreational needs.

The Advantages of Independence

3. The Upper Norwood Library is a totally self-contained, self-sufficient and stand-alone library authority and not part of any wider system—unique amongst public libraries in Britain today. Such a service is wholly geared to the needs of the community it serves. The Chief Librarian is able to plan for the specific needs of residents, giving the library a tailor-made and bespoke community character, unlike that of a one-size fits all corporate model.

4. Regular staff are always on hand at the one location, not transferred around the borough to meet staffing requirements elsewhere. This enables them to understand the interests and needs of their readers, enhances relationship with customers and adds to the quality of the service. Staff enthusiasm, motivation and commitment are strengthened by the sense of belonging to something that is highly “community-specific”.

5. Democratic accountability is achieved through the managing body, the Joint Committee, where efforts have been made to ensure local ward councillors are strongly in evidence. In addition, two local representatives of library users (normally from the Upper Norwood Library Campaign) have a guaranteed place on the Committee.

6. Numerous reports have shown the UNJL “independent” financial and governance model to be highly cost effective and efficient. An AWICS report commissioned in June 2011 by the Upper Norwood Library Campaign, showed:

Upper
Norwood

Croydon

Lambeth

Expenditure per 1,000 population

£14,001

£26,166

£28,237

Expenditure per issue

£3.28

£6.16

£9.53

Expenditure per visit

£2.53

£4.15

£6.00

7. For example, recent data posted on Lambeth’s website concerning the Lambeth borough library service states; “To run nine libraries in 2010–11 cost Lambeth Council £7.3 million” (£7.09 million after deducting the £0.21 million given by Lambeth to UNJL). The average cost of each of the nine sites is therefore £788,000. This demonstrates that UNJL with a fully inclusive total cost of £454,000, including Croydon’s contribution and estimated “in kind” support and income from fines revenue etc, is significantly cheaper.

8. If all nine Lambeth libraries were to be modelled on UNJL, forming a loose federation of independent libraries, each with its own small local committee and able to organise formal cooperation between individual sites where appropriate, the savings would be considerable. If funding were modified so that each library was resourced to an average cost of £500,000, the total outlay would still only be £4.5 million—a potential saving of over £2.5 million, without detriment to the quality of service enjoyed by local residents.

9. Local amenity groups are not alone in thinking that the UNJL model has much to offer at a time when innovative and imaginative approaches are being urged in response to Britain’s current crisis in public expenditure and the resulting future provision of library services. The South London Press, the BBC’s Radio 5 Live, the Evening Standard and Tim Coates, former MD of the Waterstone’s bookshop chain, have recently taken interest in the UNJL praising its decentralised, community engaged and value-for-money management arrangements.

10. Lambeth Council, as co-funder of the library, have been asked to consider the adoption of the UNJL model as an imaginative way forward for Lambeth’s library services, believing that it would be possible to exceed the required budgetary savings, whilst implementing a more locally focussed, locally accountable and successful library service. Such an initiative would also fit closely with Lambeth’s new Co-operative Council service model, which is closely aligned with the ethos of the UNJL. Croydon Council, the other co-funder, have also been approached to use the UNJL model for their own library services but have so far not shown interest in a co-operative council model for their libraries.

Library services

11. The Upper Norwood Joint Library is a substantial and sizeable public building and, as a self-contained, self-sufficient library authority, is a microcosm of a borough-wide library authority, offering a range and variety of library services. For the visitor, it has the feel of a large district-type Inner London library. The key and fundamental difference is that the UNJL is not part of a library system, but is the whole system in its entirety. There are no supplementary staffing input or overhead costs that characterise conventional borough branch libraries.

12. Importantly, the total pro-rata cost of the Joint Library equates to approximately half that of the average Greater London spending on library services per resident served. For example, if a decentralised and community specific model of library service governance and management, such as that adopted by the UNJL, were introduced to another library service, currently costing say £8 million per annum, the latter would have the opportunity to reduce its costs by around £4 million.

13. Service users value the availability and visibility of experienced and helpful specialist professional librarians and “front-line” assistants—an essential component of a modern library service. It is even more important at a time of major socio-economic change. This is likely to generate greater public demand resulting from the negative impact of cuts and increasingly restricted access in areas such as adult, higher and further educational institutions, advice information and guidance agencies and other Council departments. There is also the likelihood of greater demand for library services arising from detrimental social and economic change, with fewer people able to afford broadband subscriptions, ICT hardware and even books, consequent to the effects of unemployment, tax increases, inflation, pay freezes, pension reductions and a higher ratio of low paid, temporary and part-time jobs.

14. Trained and experienced professional and specialist staff are greatly valued and should be consistently available to provide expert assistance, advice and guidance in terms of access to printed and electronic resources and services to children, young people, adults and those seeking information or local history resources.

15. There is the limited use of volunteers—but, in accordance with the intentions of retired barrister Francis Bennion who drafted the 1964 Act, UNJL does not rely unduly on volunteers. Certainly volunteers are not used as a cheap replacement for paid skilled library staff.

16. The Joint Library is located at the confluence of five London boroughs. This unique district generates a complex array of information requirements and demands from local residents—many of whom can be confused as to which borough they are part of and accordingly, where they should go to find the information they are seeking. With the exception of the Library, the Crystal Palace district has few other Council facilities, no dedicated adult education premises and few information, advice and guidance agencies. Upper Norwood is a heritage-rich district. Located close to the site of Paxton’s renowned Crystal Palace, the UNJL fields a constant stream of local history enquiries. These arise from both the immediate locality, neighbouring and regional authorities, as well as nationally and internationally. Consequently, it is essential that both relevant resources and experienced staff assistance are consistently available on-site. This ensures that effective access to services can be facilitated by expert staff guidance.

17. The Joint Library has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s and numerous severe recessions since it first opened to the public in 1900. It provides opportunities for life-long learning and creative browsing, an outstanding Children’s Library that helps to create a love of books and reading in our youngsters, access to information and informal education, a fantastic programme of special events and activities each year and a free, inclusive and welcoming space for the whole community to benefit from.

Benefits to the community

18. Thanks to the concept of “shared expenses”, one of the greatest bonuses to Crystal Palace residents (as well as the “parent” boroughs, Lambeth and Croydon) is that a wide-ranging, community-specific and extensive local resource is provided for local people at only half of the cost to each authority.

19. Governance of the service already follows Cooperative Council principles, with local elected members and community representatives sitting on the management committee for the Joint Library Authority. This “grass-roots” involvement creates an ongoing dialogue between the local authorities and the community which can only assist the quality and relevance of the service provided by the UNJL, whilst minimising any risk of discord or disagreement—and possible damage to the image of the Council as a result. The self-sufficient Joint Library offers all of the facilities, range of stock, staff expertise and services that one would expect to find in a “conventional” library authority, but to a quality standard and level of performance that equals or betters that of other libraries. These standards are achieved in spite of a ratio of funding that is proportionately much lower than other library services. This means that the value for money offered by the Joint Library service “model” is around 50% higher than that of the Greater London average.

20. Operating as a stand-alone service, all staff have daily contact with service users. This ensures an informed awareness of the needs of members of the public, which in turn directly guides service planning and provision, performance management and monitoring and ongoing modification and refinement.

21. Unlike other library services whose self-generated income is appropriated by the council, UNJL’s money from fines, fees, charges, sale of books, rentals etc, is re-invested in the service. This increases the motivation of Joint Library staff to innovate and strive to create higher use and take-up of their services.

22. There is a lack of clarity over conventional “centralised” funding of library authorities, where support services and overheads costs form a substantial proportion of the overall library budget. Accordingly, it is not clear how this money, for example, in Lambeth’s case £2.7 million from a total of £7.3 million, actually benefits the library service. There are no such “hidden costs” at the UNJLA.

23. We are aware that the repute and popularity of the services at the Joint Library and the annual programme of special events and activities that it holds has been instrumental in drawing people into the Crystal Palace area from farther afield. Traders and local businesses have acknowledged that this continues to benefit local commerce, whilst helping to raise the profile of the district as a whole.

Parents/guardians who attend the “Waggle and Hum” sessions with small children then go on to use the local cafes and shops thus benefitting the local district. Older people create their own “day opportunities” instead of attending day centres by spending time in the library regularly before using the local shops and restaurants. Unwaged persons are able to access newspapers and the internet in their search for work.

24. Upper Norwood Library Campaign research has indicated that a majority of the participants using more than one library (in addition to the UNJL) expressed a preference for the Joint Library. Formal consultation exercises (including CIPFA public library user surveys) have seen the UNJLA “out-scoring” other local library authorities in most areas.

Comparison with the conventional library authority service model

25. Some library commentators have recently identified library service overheads and support service costs as being problematical, in that they form a disproportionately large part of total Council spending on library services. More worrying is the contentious and unwelcome possibility that cuts in government grants could lead to the “culling” of front-line staff (librarians and library assistants) whilst overhead costs remained largely unchanged. Rather than reducing expenditure, many “conventional” support service contracts, with their plethora of expensive and opaque overheads, turn out to be rigid, over-expensive, inflexible in their duration and difficult to alter or supervise effectively.

26. Spending reductions have generated another approach that purports to keep services afloat whilst saving money. The London Libraries Change Programme and the Future Libraries Programme work with the “received wisdom” that money can be saved by amalgamating library services and authorities to achieve “economies of scale”. Having experienced the UNJL model, the UNLC has profound doubts about the wisdom of this approach—not least the inevitable fall in the availability of specialist/professional staff and a resulting decline in service quality, effectiveness, comprehensiveness and efficiency, while the drawbacks that arise from “diseconomies of scale” are less often quoted.

27. We are firmly of the view that the Upper Norwood Joint Library service model shows that the real way to make savings in library service budgets and improve services at a locally orientated level, is to adopt the “small is beautiful” approach. This would require dispensing with expensive corporate support systems and service overheads, revision of borough wide staffing roles and centrally based remote management, moving instead towards a fully decentralised library service network consisting of autonomous library provision. This may not find favour at “officer” level, but an idea with the potential to improve service quality, value for money and accountability to residents should not be dismissed out of hand as supposedly “unworkable”.

Why the UNJLA should be used as a future service model for libraries

28. Advocates for the initiatives described, involving the creation of bigger and bigger systems, argue that savings can be made through economies of scale. Paradoxically, the small autonomous Upper Norwood Joint Library Authority offers a full range of library services proportionate to the area that it serves, at half of the pro-rata cost of library services in London (Greater London average). In tandem with this cost-effectiveness, it offers a quality, expertise and depth of service that is highly valued by library users and local organisations alike.

29. Performance summaries drawn from the 2009/10 CIPFA statistics and the annual accounts for the UNJL for the same financial year confirm the contention that the cost of providing a library service along decentralised and autonomous Joint Library lines is dramatically lower than that of the conventional, centrally supported library authority model.

30. Conventionally managed borough library services are prone to the detrimental and negative effects of diseconomies of scale. When combined with the expense and inflexibility of unwieldy service contracts and support costs, it would seem that there is a convincing case for a much wider consideration of library service autonomy. This could be combined with local community and locally elected member governance, in line with the tried and tested management arrangements for the UNJL.

31. A larger organisation is much harder to monitor and manage effectively, is more complex and co-ordination between different departments and divisions can become more difficult. As well as making management less effective, and therefore indirectly imposing costs, the systems designed to cope with the extra complexity may also directly impose costs. Those working within larger organisations may feel less committed, more isolated and less appreciated, so their loyalty, morale and motivation may diminish and, as an organisation gets bigger, it is harder to ensure that all workers are aiming for the same overall goal. It is more difficult for managers to stay in day-to-day contact with workers and build up a good team environment and sense of belonging. Lower employee motivation can have damaging consequences for productivity levels, innovation, and quality. As a result the organisation becomes much less effective. The larger the organisation, the higher transport costs are likely to be. A small organisation is able to respond much more quickly to need, demand, changing circumstances, etc, than a larger and more unwieldy one that is hampered by its sheer size. As an organisation expands communicating between different departments and along the hierarchy becomes more difficult. This may result in workers having less clear instructions from management about what they are supposed to do and when. In addition, there may be more written forms of communication (eg newsletters, notice boards, e-mails) and less face-to-face meetings, which can result in a lack of coordination, less feedback and therefore less effective communication.

32. If other Councils were to adopt the UNJL model, the savings made would be more than sufficient to allow for the improvement of library services, increased staffing and a greater volume of new books at local level. This would in turn inspire greater community involvement, engagement and participation, enhanced staff commitment and morale, an improvement in the use of library services in a local authority area and quite possibly, a rise in the income generated at each individual library.

33. The UNLC consider that this is the most cost-effective, community orientated and constructive way forward for the provision of library services in London and elsewhere. It is closely allied, for example, to the ideals and principles of Lambeth’s Co-operative Council initiative. Objectives such as greater community involvement, an enhanced role for ward councillors within their communities, empowerment to innovate in service delivery, co-produced service specifications, community budgeting, reduced bureaucracy, greater transparency all strike a chord of recognition and are redolent of aspects of the Joint Library’s management arrangements and operation.

34. Although not strictly adhering to the views requested for the Select Committee, the UNLC would appreciate the consideration of this paper since the saving of libraries is paramount to being a civilised, fair and caring society.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012