Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Alison Hopkins

1. I am Alison Hopkins, a resident of Dollis Hill in the London Borough of Brent and a local library user. I have taken part in campaigns to save Brent’s libraries. Both my local libraries have been closed by Brent Council: Neasden Library (1 mile from my home as the crow flies) and Cricklewood Library (0.6 miles from my home but in reality much further away and far less accessible because of the railway line which acts as a barrier). I will therefore focus most of my remarks on Neasden library.

2. I am deeply disappointed by the closure of these libraries and by the effect that the closures have had on former library users. It is now difficult to argue that Brent’s library service is truly comprehensive or that it meets the standard of provision that residents are entitled to expect.

3. The closure of Neasden Library, with recorded nearly 118,000 visits in 2009–10, has affected all age-groups and social classes. However I am particularly concerned about the effect on young people who use the library and its facilities for research and study. A quarter of the local population is under 19. 54% of active borrowers at Neasden Library were under 19. Neasden is an ethnically diverse area with a relatively high density of population and a significant number of families living in crowded and over-crowded accommodation.

4. Many children do not have their own bedrooms or suitable study areas within the home. Access to the internet and computers at home is far from universal. Schools now often recommend or even mandate internet research for study projects and homework. Travelling from the neighbourhood to visit a library several miles away is not always feasible, especially when travel times and issues of personal safety are taken into account. Younger children, especially, who were previously able to walk to the library, accompanied by a family member, are now forced to use public transport, which imposes additional cost on already over stretched family finances, as adult public transport is not free. The library was also used by local schools: the 2,000 pupil Crest Academy is less than half a mile from the closed library in Neasden Shopping Centre, which many of the students use as their transport hub.

5. In addition there are very few community facilities in Neasden compared to other parts of the borough. The library was used as a meeting place by groups of all ages and backgrounds, including mother and child groups and other socially valuable organisations. Closing the library has badly damaged a key component of community coherence and social inclusion, in that it has removed those opportunities for Brent residents from all backgrounds to interact.

6. Brent Council ignored the feedback from its own consultation which demonstrated clearly how much local residents valued their local libraries. Indeed, it seemed to us that the so-called “Libraries Transformation Project” was a fait accompli, given that work had already started on it before the “consultation” ended!

7. In the case of my local library, Neasden, the council spent over £300,000 on refurbishments just a couple of years before it closed. Furthermore the lease on the building does not expire until 2027 (break clause in 2022). The council is paying a current rent of £55,000 per year while total costs (including rates and security) are budgeted at £101,800 per year. Currently there appears to be little prospect of the council sub-leasing the building, given the number of other empty properties in the shopping centre which are far more suitable to retail purposes. Even if a tenant can be found, it is doubtful that the rental will cover the full cost. This is not efficient and does not demonstrate value for money.

8. I hope the committee will consider these concerns carefully and in particular:

(a)Recommend that the Secretary of State uses his powers of intervention to ensure the delivery of a comprehensive and efficient library service in Brent.

(b)Recommend the development of some basic service standards which provide a benchmark against which the performance of councils can be judged.

(c)Reaffirm the cultural and social importance of modern local libraries in the communities they serve, and recognise the contribution that well-run libraries make to social inclusion, education, learning and (not least) enjoyment and happiness.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012