Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Friends of York Gardens Library and Community Centre

The Friends is an organisation formed to keep open a library in a deprived ward that otherwise would have closed.

1. York Gardens Library and Community Centre (YGLCC) is a small neighbourhood library moments from the centre of the August 2011 riot at Clapham Junction.

2. In response to budget cuts, Wandsworth Council identified YGLCC for closure in late 2010.1 It was the only neighbourhood library in the Borough threatened with closure. Local residents and civic groups campaigned against the decision. These groups objected in particular to the fact that this library had been singled out for closure, when the Council’s evidence and data show that it serves the most deprived ward in the borough2 (in the top 5% most deprived in the UK) and is especially important to children and minority groups. It is on the edge of the Winstanley Estate and York Road council estates. 60% of residents on the Winstanley Estate are unemployed. More than 40% do not have English as their first language. Incidents of hidden homelessness and overcrowding are five times more likely in this ward than the average. The area is associated with issues of crime and antisocial behaviour. In the words of a local reverend, “The expected outcomes for families in terms of health, education and wellbeing are notoriously low for the UK.” Access to books and IT at home are both significantly lower than the average. The need for library services here are unquestionable but the way these services are used may be unconventional.

3. The campaign ultimately led to a decision in March 2011 by the Council that YGLCC would not be closed—but would instead be kept open as a “Big Society pilot project” with reduced funding, a focus almost entirely on children’s services, and a reduced staff supported by volunteers.3 The Council committed management resources (the Head of the Library and Heritage Service and a Library Service Development Manager), to be the budget holders and managers responsible for coordinating staffing resources, provision of stock, supplies and services. However, the library would only remain open if a significant amount of income could be raised by the community and with community volunteers performing crucial functions of the library and the attached community centre.

4. The Friends group was formed in the summer of 2011. It comprises local residents, library users and community groups. The Friends is a stakeholder group, working alongside the Council to help identify and recruit volunteers, raise funds for the library, and promote the community hall and other hireable space. Wandsworth Council requires the Friends to raise sufficient funds to cover the shortfall in funding for the library (approximately £70,000 annually). This may be done through fundraising and hiring out rooms in the building.

5. The Friends’ key messages for the Committee are:

(a)YGLCC is still run, owned and supported by the local authority, however its continued existence relies on community participation. The required level of community participation cannot be guaranteed in the long-term, particularly considering the particular social context of this library in a very deprived area.

(b)The local authority has recognized that maintaining the library service here is both socially and economically desirable. However, while the “big society” concept has immense value, in order to embed a successful project, the Friends group believe a greater initial investment is required.

(c)The Friends face considerable challenges in meeting the financial and resourcing (volunteering) targets set by the Council. These challenges are described further in the remainder of this submission and threaten the sustainability of the library in the long term.

(d)Accordingly, any local authorities considering whether to replicate this “Big Society” library concept, in which volunteers and the local community are relied on to play a key role, should be aware of those challenges.

Key ChallengesThe Friends’ Experience

6. Overall, the Friends would wish the Committee to be aware that this is not a role that any of them would have chosen—everyone who is a member of the Friends would have preferred that the library continued to be entirely professionally run and funded by the Council. Nor can the group guarantee its ongoing commitment over the long-term, since the demands of the library competes with their own other professional and family responsibilities.

7. Given the Council’s position that it could not retain the library in its previous form, the members of the Friends have been willing to “step up” and do their bit to keep the library open. We list below some key challenges the Friends have faced, and continue to face.

Challenges in recruiting sufficient long-term voluntary staff, and confusion over the role of volunteers and how they are to be recruited.

Despite the approach of the one year anniversary of YGLCC as a “Big Society” Pilot Project library, there is still no identified library manager (a Wandsworth council appointment). This is significantly hampering the coordination of volunteers; the ability of the centre to hire out spaces and raise funds; and community outreach to raise participation to the levels required to sustain this sort of project in the long term.

The diminution of the library as an adult library, in that it is now almost exclusively stocked with children’s books and a few reference and adult titles. No budget provision has been made for newspapers—an important social provision that had been previously made for local adults. This has made it hard to build and retain community engagement.

There has been some confusion about the division of roles and responsibilities between the community groups and the council staff. These “teething problems” (which are yet to be fully resolved) lead to inefficiencies in the way that decisions are made and may have a negative impact on budgets.

Difficulties in filling lettable rooms/generating sufficient income through hall hire. There are many reasons for this, including the economic climate, but also (and inevitably) the lack of a clear understanding of what roles are played respectively by the Council and the Friends in generating bookings and managing the booking process. For example, it is the responsibility of the Friends group to raise funds, but the responsibility of the Council to set hire charges and to record bookings. This sort of division has lead to a great deal of confusion and has certainly impacted the ability of the community groups to fulfil some of the tasks expected of it in its “Big Society” role.

Like any new “business” favourable outcomes may not initially be obvious and targets will need to reflect an early development period which is not overly ambitious and does not force the community enterprise into an immediate “failure position”.

8. Despite this long list of challenges and difficulties, one thing remains clear: York Gardens Library and Community Centre remains open today. Anyone visiting it now can see it is being well-used by the local community, with children coming in for story time, babies for rhyme time, and adults to play bridge, use computers or borrow from the available stock. As the community said during the consultation on closure, it is a well used and valuable resource and its closure would negatively impact people who really need a place like this to go, to read and to learn.

9. So while it is not the situation that anyone on the Friends wanted, the members of the Friends are all glad that the library is still going—and would wish also to place on record their thanks to the library’s staff and to the Council for its ongoing support. However, it is our belief and experience that the most efficient, effective and sustainable delivery model for library provision is through full funding, professional management and appropriate community outreach.

January 2012

1 www.wandsworth.gov.uk/site/scripts/news_article.php?newsID=10188

2 See the Equality Impact Assessment of 8 December 2010, produced as part of the consultation process on the decision to close the library, available at:
www.wandsworth.gov.uk/downloads/file/3857/eia-closure_of_york_gardens_library

3 www.wandsworth.gov.uk/news/article/10303/big_society_plan_to_save_library.
The full minutes of the Council’s decision are available here:
www.wandsworth.gov.uk/moderngov/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=499&MId=3648&Ver=4

Prepared 5th November 2012