Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Save Friern Barnet Library Group

The Save Friern Barnet Library Group is a group of local residents in the London Borough of Barnet, representing 3,000 members of our community who signed our petition, formed to save our much loved and valued Friern Barnet Library from closure.

Our objectives are to promote the continuing use of Friern Barnet Library, as a library for the local community and to promote the use of Friern Barnet Library for the local community.

We are a group with a cultural and community focus and have been working closely with, and with very strong support from, our two local residents’ associations, local primary and secondary schools and in conjunction with the Guides and AgeUK.

Summary of our Submission

The key piece of legislation pertaining to libraries in England and Wales is the 1964 Act which created provisions to ensure protection for “a comprehensive and efficient service”. It also laid down the duty for central government to ensure it “superintends and promotes the improvement of the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales”. The Wirral Report upheld the importance of a comprehensive service being maintained, pointing up deficiencies in the way the local authority had acted in relation to the elderly and vulnerable groups.

We do not believe that to date central government has complied with its duties—across England and Wales—in terms of the 1964 Act. Recent years have seen what amounts to cultural vandalism as council after council has shut down library services or forced local community groups to take on the task of running them.

Friern Barnet can be seen as an example of such inexcusable policy making. Rather than having a lesser need for its local library, the local residents of the area—facing unemployment, a growth in the population of the elderly and very young, an increase in levels of disability and a rise in numbers of residents with English as their mother tongue—are in greater need of their library. Councils seem to see libraries as merely physical spaces in which borrowers read books or obtain information, yet local libraries play a key socio-cultural role providing residents with a sense of community and cohesion. Let us not slip behind countries like Brazil which are forging ahead economically and opening neighbourhood libraries ,and let us take decisions in this Olympic Year which enable us to feel proud of our cultural heritage, which includes such luminaries as the social egalitarian Charles Dickens.

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century?

1. A variety of libraries has existed over recent centuries in England. As our country achieved development, they played their role in helping to bring about a flattening of the social pyramid by providing access to learning, and in so doing helped to create greater equality of opportunity.

2. Closures of libraries across the country (The Guardian reported in November that the future of 600 was in doubt) have been met by fierce opposition because they are highly prized by their local communities. Their value is closely linked to the myriad of activities which take place within them: from conversations among readers, to consulting the internet, reading newspapers, eliciting information from the librarians about where to go for help with different problems, doing homework. What the very many people we have spoken to have all emphasised is the importance of their location within neighbourhoods, giving ease of access to all. For example, Barnet Council’s own consultations with the local population discovered that “both users and non-users agreed that libraries should be at the heart of the community”. Sixty percent were most likely to walk to their library. Because of these views, and based on our own experience, we strongly believe that the existence of neighbourhood libraries is the only way to “encourage both adults and children to make full use of the Library Service”, as laid down in the Libraries and Museums Act, 1964.

3. Local access to libraries is key because those in employment work long hours, making travel to libraries at a distance difficult. For reasons of safety, parents like their children to walk to the library, and of course the elderly, pregnant women, and those with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged if neighbourhood libraries close. In terms of Friern Barnet Library, Barnet Council carried out consultations among the local population on the Strategic Library Review (which seeks to shut down Friern Barnet Library and North Finchley Library and replace them, at an unspecified date in the future, with a “landmark” library two miles away at a very busy traffic junction (Tally Ho Corner in Finchley) and found that the local populations of both neighbourhoods (as well as that of similarly affected Hampstead Garden Suburb) are quite opposed to the plans. Barnet Council, we discovered, shut down Totteridge Library a few years ago also arguing that it would open a modern facility in its place—a promise that was never fulfilled.

4. In the 21st Century citizens of this country expect to live in a democracy, meaning that their elected representatives listen to them. However Barnet Council’s own statistics show that 60% of their residents feel that the Council does not do this.

5. Citizens of this country expect in the 21st Century to live in a state which keeps up, to say the least, with other nations. It is noteworthy, particularly in this important Olympic year, that Brazil (which has recently become the sixth largest economy in the world) is vibrantly and intelligently opening neighbourhood libraries to feed the brains and meet the socio-cultural needs of its population.

6. The social function of libraries, we feel, has been much overlooked by policy makers. The ability of the elderly to drop into neighbourhood libraries (and the same can be said for mothers and fathers staying at home looking after young infants) can be a key factor in breaking social isolation—not to mention enabling those facing fuel poverty to access a warm space for which there is no charge.

7. Recent research has pointed up the importance of libraries as what are often the last remaining public buildings in neighbourhoods. This is born out in the case of Friern Barnet where residents complain “the Council sold off Friern Barnet Town Hall (and converted it into flats) and then did the same with Princess Park Manor (the site of a mental health institution) and now they want to shut our only remaining building”. Such buildings have symbolic importance to their communities, and are seen as representing the essence of the community itself.

8. A comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st Century also involves, in accordance with the 1964 Act, “the keeping of adequate stocks”. We have recently found out that Barnet Council has only dedicated 1.5% of its library budget to purchasing new stock for Friern Barnet Library. The resultant deterioration in the quality of the latter has not encouraged patronage. What is needed in our and other libraries across the country are adequate supplies of good quality, up to date stock and adequate numbers of well maintained computers, photocopiers and scanners. Professional librarians and specialist librarians too are an essential component of a successful service. A comprehensive and efficient library service to us means one that is provided directly by public authorities.

9. A comprehensive and efficient library service means one with a suitable physical structure. In contrast to the current, excellent buildings, the site for the proposed “landmark library”—a local theatre space—was declared unsuitable to convert into a library in 2002 when Barnet Council paid £100,000 to consultants to look into this.

10. Finally, we believe that a comprehensive and efficient library service is not necessarily one in which no changes can be instituted. But modifications must be well thought out and must meet with the entire approval of the communities for which they are meant.

To what extent are library closures compatible with the requirements of the Libraries and Museums Act, 1964 and the Charteris Report?

11. The scale of closures of libraries in England is alarming and groups around the country (the main campaigning groups in England: the Library Campaign, Voice of the Library and Londoners Love Libraries, LLL, individual libraries’ campaigning groups, as well as interested individuals) gathered in October 2011 at London University Union for a national conference on the issue. The delegates expressed stupefaction at the tardiness of the government in reacting to the piecemeal dismemberment of a network that is of so much value to the country. It is noteworthy that other organizations as diverse as the Women’s Institute and the Crime Writers’ Association have also been campaigning to keep libraries open.

12. 2012 is the year in which the United Kingdom is hosting the Olympic Games and the conference recalled the government’s desire to create as a strand to the games what were termed “cultural olympics”. The conference expressed its intention to take measures this year, in the run up to the Olympic Games, to strongly lobby government to put a speedy halt to this cultural vandalism. This year the country will also celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Dickens—who would, no doubt, be turning in his grave if he knew of the way in which the social gain of a solid, highly successful library network is being comprehensively undermined.

13. The 1964 Act lays down, under general duties, an obligation on “every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient Library Service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” … It does not refer to services that are contracted out to companies (social enterprises or not) or volunteers. The consensus of the national conference was that in the long term volunteer-run libraries may fail (as, of course, business-led ones can). We would argue that the only secure route to the provision of the service obligations described in the 1964 Act—and indeed the intent of the Act itself—is to have a publically owned and run national network of libraries.

14. The Charteris Report refers to equalities legislation (the Race Relations Act 2000, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, and the Equality Act 2006), as well as the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 and the Statutory Guidance for the Duty to Involve. Ms Charteris found that Wirral Council was in breach of the 1964 legislation because it failed to make an assessment of local needs, in particular those of adults. But she also concluded that it had not had due regard to the general requirements of children. She determined, further, that there was also a breach in relation to the needs of vulnerable communities.

15. It is our opinion that the action of councils around the country in closing or seeking to close public libraries is not only a breach of the 1964 Act but also, in many cases, of equalities legislation. The Council itself recognised in its Equality Impact Assessment that: “the change in the property network—consolidation of Friern Barnet and North Finchley into a new site, and the removal of a permanent library in Hampstead Garden Suburb will impact on all library users in those areas. We believe that disabled people, people with caring responsibilities, children and elderly people reliant on public transport could be disproportionately affected”.

16. The Council in this assessment further states: “There may be some impact on those with disabilities who … cannot access public or private transport to reach a library site and are also not eligible for the home library service. There may also be some impact on the proportion of black and minority ethnic groups and those with disabilities or mental health conditions who are currently using Friern Barnet library”. In fact we have case studies we can provide to the enquiry of individuals who will be affected in this way.

17. It should be noted, in terms of our comments on democracy in response to the first question (paragraph 4), that 91% of Friern Barnet residents expressed opposition to Barnet Council’s plan. It has not carried out genuine consultations but attempted to force through a fait accompli, to such an extent that it even printed and distributed a map of its current library service last year from which Friern Barnet Library and North Finchley Library had been deleted.

What impact do library closures have on local communities?

18. The October 2011 national conference on libraries at London University heard reports from around the country. The opinion of delegates was that these closures have a highly detrimental impact on local communities. We heard subsequently that a borough with high levels of disadvantage, Lewisham in London, has seen three of its libraries taken out of the public network. They are now being run—reportedly unsatisfactorily—by a social enterprise. From Surrey come reports on 10 January 2012 of the removal of key computers linking it to the national network at a still functioning library.

19. Our group has been active for the past eleven months and describes below some of the effects that the shutting of Friern Barnet will have on the local community. First, however, a few statistics from Barnet Council’s own services which underline that the need for local libraries is set to grow rather than decrease.

20. Barnet’s Insight Unit’s figures for 2011 show that the local population is growing. This unit foresees, in particular, a growth in the elderly and in the very young. It predicts an increase of 5% in those aged 18–64 in Barnet with a serious physical disability by the year 2015. The number of residents aged over 65 with serious physical disability is predicted by this unit to grow at twice the average rate. The Insight Unit also stated last year that: “improved survival, rising birth rates and growth among communities at higher risk of learning disabilities all mean that this is likely to be an area of growing need locally”. It further noted the prevalence locally (and nationally) of poor mental health which it said is “numerically significant but frequently overlooked”.

21. In terms of the needs of children, a key aspect under the 1964 Act, the figures last year by Barnet Council’s Insight Unit on the current demographic trend in the Borough are as follows: “Over the past 10 years the number of annual births in Barnet has risen by 28%—far higher than in other London boroughs”.

22. With relation to the needs of the unemployed, Barnet’s Insight Unit stated in 2011 that “latest figures reveal that a greater proportion of Barnet’s population are struggling to find work than almost any time in the last half decade”.

23. Turning to our own experiences vís-a-vís community requirements, we know that the full range of residents will be adversely affected. These include the elderly and infirm (one lady who visits the library suffers both from a severe pulmonary condition necessitating the use of oxygen four hours per day and manic depression), the unemployed (a father of five who immigrated to this country fleeing persecution in Rwanda is one of the founders of our group).

24. We have letters from four local schools (and one Enfield school) whose children utilise this library: in other words thousands of local children will be prejudiced (450 children from one local primary school alone).

25. The opinion is sometimes voiced nowadays that “today, with kindles, people don’t need books so much from libraries” (this view was expressed to us by no less than one of our elected representatives). Yet, we know from our campaigning that there are residents in the borough who cannot afford a computer or to pay for a broadband connection. Similar arguments are used about the availability of cheap second hand books, but this completely ignores the social function of libraries.

26. In terms of local income levels, Barnet Council’s own statistics (A health profile of Barnet, 2008) revealed that Coppetts Ward (where Friern Barnet Library is located) featured at the time levels of deprivation among residents, as measured by numbers of families receiving means tested benefits, of between 18–32%—a percentage that has, no doubt, risen in the economic downturn. Coppetts Ward’s residents, therefore, have considerable need for the type of social, cultural and physical infrastructure that libraries represent to support families.

27. The ethnic mix of the population in Coppetts Ward should not be forgotten in relation to the local library. At one local primary school alone (Holly Park School) about 50% of children have English as a second language. At St. Johns it is lower but higher at St Pauls. Literacy is normally achieved in school but is backed up by reading books that often, if not always, need to be obtained from libraries. The possible disappearance of such an important facility as the local library is extremely worrying in terms of its implications for child development.

28. In paragraphs seven and eight we refer to the social function of libraries and their symbolic value for local communities. Many local residents have told us that if the Council shuts the library they will be “taking out the heart of our community”. Councils who axe neighbourhood libraries are contributing to the destruction of “a sense of community” which is needed, we would argue, by all.

29. We believe that the above statistics and information about Friern Barnet residents and library users reveal that Barnet Council will be acting against the 1964 Act and in breach of Equalities Legislation if it takes Friern Barnet Library (and indeed North Finchley Library) out of its libraries network.

The effectiveness of the Secretary of State’s power of intervention under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964

30. Libraries fall under the aegis, from October 2011, of the Arts Council England (ACE), but ultimate responsibility for them lies with the Secretary of State for Culture.

That the Secretary of State needs to intervene cannot be in any doubt. Let us refer here, once again to our local situation.

We would point out that the 1964 Act states that:

(1)Local authorities are required to “keep adequate stocks of books and other printed matter, pictures, film, gramophone records . . . Sufficient in number, range and quality to meet general requirements and any special requirements of both adults and children”.

31. We believe that this has not been the case with Friern Barnet Library for a number of years. Barnet has spent only 1.5% of its annual library budget on Friern Barnet Library in what borrowers feel may be a deliberate strategy to run down the service so that when footfall drops the decision to close it seems more logical. It has also reduced the services of a children’s peripatetic librarian, cut the very popular toddler rhyme group and the internet sessions. We have letters from schools showing dismay at the planned closure and welcoming our efforts—given the pressure from the local authority—to provide volunteers to expand the children’s service.

32. Also:

(2)The Act further states that local authorities may not charge borrowers of books yet Friern Barnet Library has such low stock that borrowers are frequently compelled to apply to have most of the books they require sent from other libraries in the borough. Adults availing themselves of this service have to pay for it.

33. The Act stipulates that local authorities should “encourage both adults and children to make full use of the library service …”

34. When our library service is run down with a very slow internet connection, poor or no photocopying provision and inadequate stock, the authorities in charge of Friern Barnet Library cannot be said to be discharging their duties to the people of Friern Barnet.

35. Residents of Friern Barnet who are reliant on public transport, groups of children from local schools, those with physical and or mental disabilities and the elderly will find it considerably more difficult to make use of another library when Barnet Council closes the doors of Friern Barnet Library on 31 March 2012. The Council refuses to keep the library open until its projected “landmark” library is open at some undefined future date (a promise already made and broken when it shut Totteridge Library, and in any case the Council’s own consultants reported several years ago that the facilities of the “landmark library” are unsuitable). The facility the Council plans to open for this new library is not suitable for such users being located at a very busy bus station whose entrances and exits pedestrians are obliged to cross without the aid of proper crossings or lights. None of this lives up to the spirit of “making full use of the library service”.

36. This situation is of great importance to the residents of Friern Barnet but we underline the fact that circumstances like these are being replicated around the country.

37. The Statutory Guidance for the Duty to Involve, that came into force in 2009, specifies that authorities should offer appropriate opportunities for people to have their say about the decisions and services that affect them through consultation. In light of the Council’s stated intention to shut Friern Barnet Library we presented it with a proposal outlining 14 services volunteers could provide to enhance the service there, only to be met with refusal from Council Officers and the Officer in charge of libraries, Robert Rams. We await reaction to our second proposal. To date the Council has offered us merely an opportunity to run the library in isolation from the Barnet public library system, with stock that it might donate to us and with no inclusion in the inter-library borrowing network (unless we can fund this). This is all against the backdrop of their stated desire to sell off the building.

38. The Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey was quoted in an interview in June 2011 (in the Library Campaigner, Autumn 2011) as saying: “my powers allow me to prevent a local authority breaching its statutory duty. But let me be clear. I do not run the library services. Local authorities do”. He also said: “If half your libraries account for just over 10% of your visits, rationalisation is an option you might consider”.

39. In response we would say that rationalisation is not improvement and ensuring an improvement (our italics) is what the legislation requires. No less than the legal expert, Francis Bennion, who drafted the 1964 Act, emphasised recently in “The Library Campaigner” that this legislation created a duty for government:

(1)“To superintend and promote the improvement of the public library service provided by the local authorities in England and Wales.

(2)To secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities”.

40. Finally, we fervently hope that the cross-party committee charged with leading this enquiry will take decisions that are in line with both the spirit and the letter of the Libraries and Museums Act, 1964. We believe that the only way to ensure that the 1964 Act is respected is to prevent any further closures at all of libraries and to order an end to the handing over of services to volunteers or their placing in the hands of enterprises given that volunteer or business-run libraries will never ensure over the long term “a comprehensive and efficient service” or one which “encourages adults and children to make full use of the Library Service”.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012