Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Alan Goodearl

I am worried by the closure of libraries and particularly by what is happening in the London Borough of Brent, where I live. This authority is attempting to close half of its libraries permanently and at least one other temporarily.

I have four areas of concern:

1.I wonder how such large scale closures can reconciled with the 1964 Museums and Libraries Act.

2.I worry about the effect closing the libraries will have on local people.

3.I worry about the way the closures were handled and about how this has damaged relations between my council and the people it is supposed to represent.

4.I am concerned by the failure of the Sect of State to uphold the 1964 Act.

1. The Museums and Libraries Act

With regard to the 1964 Act, I came across a letter written by Francis Bennion, who I believe is a now retired barrister, who helped draft the Bill. He writes,

“I read Caitlin Moran’s account of the debt she owes her threatened public library as the only alma mater she has ever had (The Times Magazine, 13 August 2011) with particular sympathy. Nearly half a century ago I was struggling to draft appropriately the Bill that became the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. I was instructed to draw a reasonable line between the requirements of the public and the limited resources of local authorities. The Act is still operative. Various attempts to enforce it by judicial review are pending.

The Act says a local authority which is a library authority must “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons … whose residence or place of work is within the library area of the authority or who are undergoing full-time education within that area”. Its stock of “books and other printed matter, and pictures, gramophone records, films and other materials,” must be “sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children”.

Under this provision a severe reduction now in the public library facilities which were being provided by a particular library authority two or three years ago is likely to be unlawful. This is because there is a presumption that the earlier provision did not exceed what was required under the Act.

The Act also says that the Government must “superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and … secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities”.

It does not appear that the statutory duties I have mentioned are being adequately fulfilled at present. The Act does not contain any provision for reduction of the duties because of a need for “cuts”.

This was published in part in the Times on 16 August 2011 and in full on the Voices for the Library website at: www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/?p=2017#_ftn1

This reading of the Act would hardly encompass Brent council’s attempt to closure half of its libraries. While obviously what matters is what the Act says, rather than what the man who drafted it thought it should say, his view is surely worth taking into consideration when looking at the legality of such cuts.

2. The Effect of Library Closures on People in Brent

Brent is trying to close an unusually high proportion of its libraries. Many other London councils reduced or abandoned their closure plans once the strength of public feeling on this issue became apparent. Brent has not.

If they are not over-turned, these library closures will be particularly felt by studious children from poor families. Brent is unusual in combining areas of high depravation with relatively high property prices. In consequence, a lot of families live in cramped accommodation. Many do not have room for a study or the money to equip it with suitable books. Children might not have a computer of their own, or a quiet room in which to work on it. In a borough like this, libraries give many children the only chance they have.

A teenager who came to public meeting held to discuss libraries in Brent said that after school her classmates go to the off-licence and on to the streets to make trouble. She goes to the library and does her homework. She asked why was she the one being punished? It is a question your committee might usefully address. She spoke before the recent disturbances in London, but it cannot be a good if even diligent children like this are seeing opportunities lopped-off.

The closest to me of the threatened libraries, and the one of which I know most, is Kensal Rise. Under council control, only one of the three floors of this substantial building is used. A charity called Into University, which provides mentoring and support for deprived children studying for university, operates in the area and is short of space. They have expressed interest in moving into some of the empty rooms at Kensal Rise library. The rents they can pay will off-set to a considerable degree the costs of maintaining the library. Local people trying to preserve the library have suggested this to the council, but received no useful response.

Libraries are also wonderful places to introduce toddlers to the world of books. This is particularly true for children whose parents don’t have English as their first language and who might not have many English-language books at home. This is relevant to Brent, which I think has the richest racial mix of any local authority in the country. Kensal Rise had a thriving children’s library and, I believe, the lowest age profile in the borough.

Local libraries are also vital to elderly people. They give human contact. For those who cannot walk easily they provide a destination at which they can rest before facing the journey home.

If one compares the education and health benefits libraries produce with the cost of schooling and of health care, the bargain that this service provides becomes apparent. Libraries suffer from being seen in isolation.

3. The Damage the Way the Closures were Handled has Done to the Relationship between Local People and their Council

As well as objecting to the scale of library closures in Brent I am concerned by the way in which the council have gone about closing them.

Local people have been so shocked by this that they have taken the council to the High Court and then to the Appeal Court. The fact that local people have been willing, with little notice, to raise around £30,000 towards the cost of legal action is indicative of the strength of feeling the council’s behaviour has provoked.

While some of the issues discussed in court were necessarily narrow and technical, local disquiet stems more from suspicion that the council had essentially decided to close these libraries before the consultation began.

I attended one of the first public consultations held on it, I think in December of 2010, and drew from it the impression that the council had already made up its mind.

The only element of this consultation open to all members of the public and to dispassionate analysis was a questionnaire, put out by the council. Confidence in the value the council put in its consultation was not helped when it was noticed that the closing date for the return of this questionnaire came after the budget meeting which essentially determined the library closures. A good number of questionnaires were returned after that date and so could not possibly have been considered by councillors voting on the library budget.

Despite this, the council were surprised by the number of questionnaires that were returned. Over 8% of respondents rejected the council’s closure plans. Given the nature of these plans that is hardly surprising. What surprised me, though, was the council’s response to its consultation.

If you’ve a low boredom threshold you can check it out here:
http://democracy.brent.gov.uk/mgConvert2Pdf.aspx?ID=3916&T=9

But essentially there is nothing there. You’d expect a council consulting on proposals that had been rejected by more than 80% of people who responded to its own questionnaire to at least make some superficial changes to give the impression that they were listening. If they have, I could not spot them.

The council argues that a consultation isn’t a referendum. A consultation, though, if it is to be more than purely decorative, has to allow for the possibility of change. If a policy rejected by 80% of those consulted on it sails on, immaculate and unchanged, one has to ask whether people were consulted in any meaningful sense?

4. The Secretary of State’s Inaction

I put these concerns to Jeremy Hunt in a letter of 31 August 2011. I received in response a ready-made letter which gave the impression that my letter had not been read. It did not answer any of the questions I had asked. I know of many local people who have written along the same lines to Hunt. I do not know of any who have received an adequate reply.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012