Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Kent County Council

1. Summary

1.1 In our submission we describe:

1.1.1The changes that have taken place since the Public Libraries and Museums Act was introduced in relation to: the way people live their lives and their expectations of public services; the technological developments; the developing objectives of local government and the contribution libraries can make to these agendas; the changing relationship between central and local government including the focus on localism; and the realities of the current economic climate.

1.1.2The constant need to review all public services and adapt them to meet the needs of the changing environment, taking a long-term view and ensuring their sustainability.

1.1.3Our recognition of the affection that local people have for their local library services, and our need to address this is proposing and implementing change.

1.1.4Kent County Council’s plans to continue its programme of service modernisation in partnership with local people.

1.1.5Our concerns about the lack of clarity over the statutory responsibility given to local authorities by the Act, and the ways in which these responsibilities are tested by the Secretary of State, and the courts.

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

2.1 The world has moved on since the founding of the public library system and much of this change has unfolded since the current legislation was introduced in 1964.

2.2 Many attempts have been made in the past to define a minimum level of provision that would constitute a comprehensive and efficient library service, and all have fallen by the wayside. Public Library Standards and National Indicators are the two most recent examples. One of the principle difficulties that they have faced is the uniqueness of every community and every local authority area, making quantitative comparison a blunt tool to define comprehensive and efficient provision. Indeed the range of size and demographic profile of local authorities is huge making any comparison difficult. Such national standards also suffer from being national, in other words divorced from understanding of local need and the wishes of local people. Nor are they consistent with the localism agenda and the expressed wish of national and local government to devolve local decision making and encourage local people to become more engaged in local service design and delivery.

2.3 The way we live our lives has dramatically changed and libraries are striving to respond to this change by launching new services and opening new channels to access those services. Examples include the addition of public access to IT to our service offer many years ago; and more recently the launch of a variety of online services like 24/7 online reference and information services and eBook downloading services. Such changes are essential if public libraries are to stay relevant and respond to the changing demands and needs of our customers, but as take-up of such offers increases, the number of face to face transactions is decreasing, and this process will only escalate as we provide more services online and more people choose to migrate to these new channel offers.

2.4 The places people visit in their daily lives are changing with more people owning cars and routinely travelling some distance to access shops, leisure facilities, employment and study. The network of library buildings that was developed for an earlier age is, in many cases, not best sited to suit most local people. And with the increasing complexity of our service offer, and the opportunities we are exploiting to work closely with partners to offer seamless public services, the smallest libraries often cannot offer the wide range of services that are being delivered in bigger centres.

2.5 We know that the library of the future needs to be more that just a building to house the collections. It needs to be a vibrant hub; attractive and welcoming to everyone; conveniently located where people go in their daily lives; co-located with other public services; buzzing with a wide range of activities for everyone; safe and comfortable to use. These kinds of activities do not need to be in a dedicated library building, or indeed in some cases in any physical space. In Kent there are many such examples such as:

2.5.1We know that people regularly get together for reading groups, local history groups and reminiscence groups in other buildings and online.

2.5.2Library staff and volunteers often hold story times for children at other community venues.

2.5.3Initiatives such as, The Doorstep Library, take reading activity to the homes of families who would never visit library buildings.

2.6 We recognise that communities need hubs, places which bring local people together to share experiences and knowledge and to develop the ties that bind the community together. In many communities there are many such existing hubs with village halls, day centres, extended schools, doctors surgeries, pubs and other places serving this purpose. Where opportunities exist or can be created we believe that local people are best served by us working with these other agencies and organisations to deliver our services seamlessly. The dedicated stand alone library of the past is not the best place for us to deliver vibrant and relevant library services for the future. And we also believe that by working in partnership with local people and organisations we can together deliver better and more efficient services for the community.

2.7 So when we talk about comprehensive and efficient library services we need to balance the increasing appetite for non-building based services, and the need to work intelligently with local communities and other agencies to meet the library and other needs of local people in the best way for that community.

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

3.1 In Kent we have no current plans for library closures. We currently deliver library services from buildings in 99 communities plus through a fleet of 11 mobile libraries. We have closed 10 library buildings in the last 30 years in response to the changing needs of communities, and expect that there will be further closures or re-provision in the future as this is a natural process and to exclude the possibility would be to fail to recognise the need to change and adapt to our environment. In all cases these closures, like any other significant service changes, have followed a needs analysis of the communities served and comprehensive public consultation. Users of these libraries have in most cases transferred to other libraries (in some cases there was a library less than a mile away) or to existing or new mobile library stops. During the same period we have relocated several other libraries to better locations in their community. In the future we will also need to respond to projected housing growth and in some cases this will involve adding new service delivery points.

3.2 As the Select Committee will be aware, there is no clear and unambiguous definition of what constitutes a “comprehensive and efficient library service”. In this context the report of the Wirral Inquiry has been interpreted by the sector as good guidance on the process that a local authority should follow in reviewing its library service, and of the decisions it might make which would not leave it in breach of the Act, namely:

Ensuring that the full range of services offered by libraries are understood.

Identifying “core” or “universal” services.

Identifying those services that might be targeted to particular groups.

Making a full assessment of local need, with particular focus on the needs of groups that are particularly disadvantaged in accessing library services by virtue of age, mobility, educational attainment, unemployment etc.

Using the information generated by this needs analysis in an objective way to inform the shape of the proposed future library services.

Producing a comprehensive strategic library development plan which evidences how the needs of the people of the authority will be met by the proposed library services.

Consulting widely with all stakeholders and be informed by this feedback in revising this proposed strategy before submitting for decision.

3.3 Since the Charteris Report was published we have reviewed the processes we have used in the past to plan and implement library closures, and have developed a much more comprehensive and robust needs analysis and consultation model. This model was developed by us in partnership with Oxfordshire County Council and MLA through one of the first round of Future Library Programme projects and uses a range of data sources to find out more about our communities. These include analyses of our existing customer base against the whole population using data on library use, shopping habits, deprivation factors, special needs, transport networks etc.

3.4 The Charteris Report recommends a strategic approach to designing library networks which we would fully support. However we also recognise the level of interest in and affection for local libraries that exists in the community and the resistance to any change that is often demonstrated when re-provision or closure is proposed, however wise or appropriate the change in the wider context of local authority priorities and statutory obligations. This presents a real challenge to the authority in making good long-term decisions to ensure a sustainable future of public library services in Kent.

3.5 Like all other local authorities, we do need to find ways to spend less delivering all our public services. We have already delivered very significant savings from within the Library Service through a range of efficiency and policy savings that have not had significant impact on services to the public. These include the rollout of self-service technology, rationalisation of management roles and the outsourcing of our delivery processes. More such efficiency savings are planned. However, this will not be enough and we now need to think creatively about how to deliver excellent library services to the public while reducing front of house costs further.

3.6 Kent County Council members have recognised the vital role libraries play in different communities. They have tasked officers with taking a considered approach and have given managers the time to research what other authorities have been doing; to develop and use the needs analysis model mentioned earlier; and to consider a range of options.

3.7 Out of this research, the way in which we are planning to develop our proposals for delivering Library Services in the future has emerged. At the heart of this approach is the fact that Kent County Council is determined that local people should be fully engaged in any debate on the design and delivery of library services in their community. To this end discussions are starting with groups in each of the 12 districts in the County, in most cases led by the new Locality Boards that are starting their work to support the bringing together of public services effectively at a district level. These discussions are starting with meetings of elected members from all tiers of local authority, and community representatives. Debates will develop and local people will be invited to give their views and ideas and to comment on the developing plans before any decisions are taken. The way in which this approach progresses will be different in each district as we respond to the wishes of local people.

3.8 We expect a range of options to emerge, examples could include:

3.8.1Sharing premises and customer service staffing costs with other local organisations or agencies, either in existing library buildings or in partners’ buildings in the same community;

3.8.2Commissioning other service providers to deliver library services on a full or part time basis.

3.8.3Commissioning local communities to take over local service delivery—through a volunteering model supported by Kent County Council.

3.9 We believe that other ideas and options will emerge and we will be open to looking at all suggestions and will seek specific solutions for each community.

3.10 This process is at a very early stage at this time but we are seeing a real appetite for this debate. This bottom up approach will need to be brought together into a coherent plan for library services in Kent that is responsive to the wishes of local people but also enables us to fully exploit the economies of scale and the level of expertise deliverable across an authority as large as Kent County Council. This is not an insignificant challenge but one that an authority with our track record and reputation is more than able to meet.

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

4.1 We do not believe that the current mechanisms for the Secretary of State to intervene are effective.

4.1.1On the one hand, the current process is inconsistent with the localism agenda. Without significant additional resource, it is not possible for the DCMS, or ACE (Arts Council England) on their behalf, to have the detailed knowledge and understanding of local needs and wishes that a local authority will hold through its local councillors and staff.

4.1.2With the increasing use of the Judicial Review process by local people, local authorities are put in double jeopardy when making changes to library services, through Public Inquiry initiated by the Secretary of State and through the Judicial Review process.

4.1.3We recognise that there needs to be a process to deal with local authorities deemed to be in breach of their statutory responsibility. However, the current process means the authority has to invest significantly in strategic review, development of service change proposals, public consultation and formal decision making before the Secretary of State takes a decision whether or not to intervene. The process of intervention through Public Inquiry is hugely costly to the public purse and delays implementation of the authority’s proposals, and potential savings, while the process is completed.

4.1.4If a process other than Judicial Review is needed to enforce the legislation, would it be better if the DCMS or ACE were tasked with engaging in a dialogue much earlier with local authorities planning such reviews? Such a process would need significant resource on the part ACE and DCMS, especially at this time when so many authorities have or are fundamentally reviewing their library services.

5. Conclusion

5.1 We hope that Kent County Council’s submission adds to the debate initiated by the Select Committee and look forward to reading the findings that emerge. The Committee will be aware that all local authorities are facing challenging objectives to maintain much loved public library services, while finding creative ways to support economic recovery by reducing costs. Many Library Authorities have already completed their strategic reviews and are in the process of implementing changes to service provision. Others, like us, are earlier in the process. We are committed to seeking all possible intelligence to inform our debate and the findings of the Select Committee will form part of this research. However, as the Committee would expect, Kent County Council’s overriding responsibility is to the people of Kent and whatever decisions we take to ensure the future of our library services will be primarily informed by local people.

5.2 We would be happy to provide more information if the Committee should wish.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012