Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Laura Collignon

Introduction

1. I am resident in the London Borough of Brent and my local library is Kensal Rise, which was closed on 13 October 2011 by Brent Council. I have been actively involved in campaigning to save libraries in Brent. I am involved in the campaign to save Kensal Rise Library and also the umbrella group Brent Save Our Six Libraries (“Brent SOS”). I am very concerned about the closure of half, six of twelve, of the libraries in Brent.

2. My view is that the decision to close half of its libraries was a terrible decision by Brent Council which will have immensely damaging consequences for those who most need the library service. It seems to me that Brent Council fundamentally misunderstands for what (and for whom) libraries exist. There seems to be a misplaced emphasis on virtual services (which are not available to a lot of people) and gimmicks. Brent appear to me to lack any understanding of the needs of library users. They have paid no heed to the concerns of local people as originally expressed in the “consultation” process carried out prior to the library closures and as continually and forcefully expressed in campaigning and legal action since the closures.

My Own Experience of Public Libraries

3. I am now aged 35. I have used public libraries throughout my life. When I was a very small child, a mobile library came to our village (which was about 14 miles outside Edinburgh) in the evening. My mother would take us over in our pyjamas to choose books. Later, after my mother learned to drive, my sister, brother and I were taken to a larger library in a nearby town. I was a keen reader from an early age, and I borrowed and read a lot of books. It is fair to say that we did have books at home, but there was a much better selection in the library. My parents were not especially well off and would not have been able to afford to buy us every book that we wanted to read.

4. We moved to Claygate, Surrey, England when I was nine. I used both the mobile library when it came to Claygate, and also Esher Library. It was possible to reach Esher Library by cycling or by bus but I generally only went when my mother took us by car. I worked at Esher Library on Saturdays during my final A-level year. During this year I borrowed books on tape for an elderly and disabled lady who lived on her own in Claygate, and would deliver them to her after finishing work at the library, as she could not travel to the library herself.

5. Throughout my education I attended local state schools. I attended a comprehensive school from the age of 12 to 16, then a state grammar school for my A-levels (my comprehensive school did not have a sixth form and finished at age 16). I did some A-level revision in Esher library when there were noisy building works going on next door to my home.

6. I went to Christ Church, Oxford University, to study law in 1994. I remember mentioning a library book that I was reading (Brideshead Revisited) in the course of my interview at Christ Church. During my degree years I had the benefit of wonderful college and university library facilities, and did not have much time to read for pleasure, so did not make use of public libraries in Oxford. I did use the law section of Kingston University library on occasion during the summer holidays.

7. After leaving university I moved to Kilburn in London, and later to Kensal Green. When I lived in Kilburn I spent several years living on the South Kilburn estate, which is a very socially deprived area and where I volunteered for some years at a local youth club. I have worked as a self-employed barrister at Thomas More Chambers since 2001. Whilst living in Kilburn I used Kilburn Library. On moving to Kensal Green I used Kensal Rise Library. Both of these libraries were a short walk from my home.

8. I am sure that the free access I had to books and quiet space through public libraries was instrumental in developing my confidence in reading, and my wider knowledge of the world. I have campaigned to save local libraries in Brent because I am aware from my own experience of the importance of good public libraries and the benefits that they bring. I feel that those benefits should continue to be available to local people, especially to children and young people, and should not be taken away from them. I am firmly of the view that Brent’s decision to close half of its libraries is depriving many people of a facility that they need and rely on. Telling people that they can travel further to another library or find things online is unrealistic, bearing in mind the groups of people who are most reliant on the library service.

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

9. My view, based on my own experience of libraries and of my local area, and after a year of campaigning to save local libraries in Brent, is that the basic requirements for a comprehensive and efficient library service are as follows:

(a)Libraries need to be local, ideally within walking distance. I would strongly support reintroduction of national library standards which require provision of a library within a mile of homes in urban areas.

(b)Libraries should provide a good selection of books including fiction, non-fiction, reference, study texts and children’s books, both through their own stock and through good inter-loan relationships with other libraries. Not every book is available on a Kindle or in Tesco. Many people do not have the resources to buy every book they need or want to read. The book stock in Kensal Rise Library prior to closure was poor. The donated stock in the “pop-up” community library opened on the forecourt since the closure of Kensal Rise Library is noticeably better of better quality than what was in the library.

(c)Libraries should provide free computer and internet access in the library. A lot of people don’t have computers or internet access at home and rely on those facilities in the library.

(d)Libraries should provide quiet, safe, study space, especially for young people working towards exams.

(e)Libraries need trained librarians.

(f)Libraries should support and facilitate use of their buildings by the community for library related purposes eg book groups, local societies.

10. In relation to the need for local libraries, the people who rely on libraries most are the young, the old, the disabled, the poor and unemployed, and people who are vulnerable in other ways. There is a strong and obvious correlation between the circumstances of people in these groups and an inability to travel very far to visit a library. Two examples spring to mind from my knowledge of the situation in Brent, and I am sure that these are typical of many more:

My friend (A), a claimant in the judicial review of Brent Council’s library closure decisions. She used Barham Park library very regularly, I think more than once a week, with her two young daughters. It is a five minute walk from their home. She has very limited financial resources and has had quite a difficult life in various ways. Her daughters love reading, and borrowed a lot of books from the library. She used Barham Park library herself for computer and internet access as she does not have and cannot afford an internet connection at home. She cannot afford to get on a bus every time she wants to. She could go to Ealing Road library, which is over a mile away and was already very overcrowded before half of the libraries in Brent were closed. She has tried taking her daughters to Harlesden Library by bus, which is about four or five miles away. This is not a realistic alternative to a library which was a short walk from their home.

A severely disabled man (B) lives near Kensal Rise Library. He is a wheelchair user. There are huge flight of steps at Kensal Green and Kensal Rise stations, so there is no way for him to get on the tube to travel to Kilburn Library in Queen’s Park. The steps at Kensal Green station present a similar accessibility problem for anyone with a baby in a pushchair, or toddlers, and for the elderly and/or mobility impaired. Buses are more accessible than they were, but there is not always space on a bus for a wheelchair user and there is no direct bus from Kensal Green to Queen’s Park.

11. When Jeremy Hunt said to the Select Committee on 27 October 2011 that “what we are here to protect under the 1964 Act I am absolutely clear is not library buildings but library services” he demonstrated a fundamental lack of awareness of the need for a library service in a local building which can actually be accessed by those who most need it. He also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the need for libraries as a quiet space for study.

The extent to which planned library closures are compatible with the requirements of the Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and the Charteris Report

12. By definition, the closure of local libraries is a failure to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. A library service is not comprehensive and efficient if people who need it cannot access it.

The impact library closures have on local communities

13. The impact on local communities is very damaging. I do not believe that those who are most in need of library services in Brent will be able to travel further to access other libraries. I am aware from my experiences of living in Brent since 1997 that young people locally who are already suffering from social deprivation find it very difficult to study and get the qualifications that they need to progress into employment or on to higher education. Shortage of money and time, and to some extent their own or their parents’ concerns about their personal safety, are likely to make it difficult for them to travel further to use another library. There are already enough barriers in the way of young people who want to study and do well at school. Taking away local libraries is one of the most damaging things that Brent Council could have done to this group. Libraries provide extraordinarily good value for money for the opportunities that they provide.

14. The local community in Kensal Rise need and want their local library so much that since Kensal Rise Library was closed by Brent Council on 13 October 2011, local people have run an outdoor library in a temporary shelter on the library forecourt. An outdoor library is not an obviously attractive proposition at the best of times, and especially not in the winter months, but four months on at the time of writing, the “pop-up” library is still going strong.

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

15. These powers have been completely ineffective because of Jeremy Hunt’s failure to exercise them in the face of destruction of library services across the country. I suggest that the existing powers be amended to require the Secretary of State to make a definite decision about intervention within a specific period after a request for intervention is made. The experience of Brent residents is that any letter (or quantity of letters), no matter how detailed or considered in its content, receives the same standard response. Thousands of letters have been sent by Brent residents to Mr Hunt over many months, expressing concern about library closures in Brent. There has been no indication that these concerns have been taken seriously. DCMS has not met with Brent residents and has not disclosed the details of a meeting held with Brent Council some time ago. The Secretary of State’s powers have been meaningless.

Conclusions

16. I strongly support the reintroduction of national library standards. If the national library standards had remained in place they might have prevented some of the destruction of library services which is currently taking place in Brent and nationally.

17. I also strongly support an amendment to the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention so as to require a decision on whether or not to intervene within a specific period after a request for intervention is made.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012