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

1. Gloucestershire Context

1.1 Gloucestershire County Council is the upper tier authority, serving a population of 593,500 residents, and currently provides 38 libraries offering books, DVDs, CDs, free internet access, electronic library services and outreach services into the community as well as five mobile libraries.

1.2 The Council needs to find savings of £114 million between 2010–11 and 2014–15 from a budget of approximately £400 million. This is to meet both reductions in government grant and demographic pressures—for example increasing numbers of older people requiring the council’s care. Following public consultation, Council set a four year budget strategy that protected spending on the most vulnerable with adult social care budgets ring-fenced from any cash reductions.

1.3 This has meant every other area of Council business has to change. In this context, the library budget faces a share of the budget reduction of approximately £1.8 million (a reduction of around 25%—less than the average level of saving across the council). Following a high court judgement, the Council is now reformulating its proposals for Gloucestershire’s library service.

1.4 This submission reflects Gloucestershire council’s current thinking about how library services could develop in the medium term but the longer term picture is less clear.

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

2.1 Local authorities have a duty to provide a range of local services and library services are one aspect of these. We believe it does not, and should not, exist in isolation from the wider context of local authority public services.

2.2 We believe that the provision of a library service is about supporting individuals and local communities to achieve their aspirations and to provide access to books, information and learning opportunities in a variety of ways and in partnership with others; helping people to make the most of their journey through life.

2.3 We believe that local authorities should assess and take into account the needs of those wishing to use the library service in order to enable the service to meet those needs. The challenge is that in focusing on meeting the disparate needs of many in a universal library offer we may be in danger of not meeting the specific needs of the few; those very people who may be in some way be more vulnerable and in greater need of the benefits of access to a library service.

2.4 How do we address this? We think that we need to recognise that we live in the 21st century. People’s lives are radically differently compared to 50 years ago. Economic, social and technological changes can not be ignored. How we find and use information, how we communicate and how we use our leisure time is all different. Digital books and the impact this will have on publishing and book supply and formats will have a radical impact on library service provision in the next five to 10 years.

2.5 We acknowledge that we live in a time when resource implications cannot be ignored and we recognise that we are in a period of transition and this is an uncomfortable journey for many people who benefit from, and value, the role of library services in their lives. This is why we believe that the approach to addressing these challenges in the immediate future is to find ways to work together with other partners in the community.

2.6 We suggest that library services could be seen as part of a wider network of services, including those of council and partner agencies, which all contribute to bringing about sustainable and active communities. This might mean that:

(a)Libraries are increasing co-located with other services.

(b)Library services become a “front door” or “electronic portal” through which people access a range of other council, community and partner agency provision.

(c)Library outreach programmes supporting access to books and reading and learning work increasingly in partnership with others sharing aims to support improving outcomes for people and fostering equality of opportunities.

(d)Library services are delivered in a range of flexible ways through engagement with communities and volunteers helping to extend the range and reach of an authority’s core library service.

(e)More aspects of library services are made available by digital means and via “virtual” library services and in this extends access to people who may never use a library building.

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

3.1 Much of the national public debate on public libraries focuses on the issue of buildings. This narrow focus belies the significant changes we are seeing in the way people access information and the role that a public library service has in this new world. When 1964 Act was enacted nearly half a century ago, the revolution in access to electronic information was not envisaged.

3.2 Local library authorities therefore need to be mindful of how to comply with the spirit of the Act in an age where the means of access to information, reading and learning have changed so much. Local authorities need to be given the freedom to work with communities to devise innovative solutions and to tailor the service provision to local needs.

3.3 The 1964 Act allows the local authority to have a broad discretion in determining how to meet the statutory duty to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. Recent case law indicates that local authorities should assess and take into account the needs of those wishing to use the library service to enable the service to meet those needs.

3.4 We would agree with the High Court in our recent judicial review, when the judge noted that library provision “cannot be exempt or divorced from resource issues and cannot escape the budget reductions which have been rendered inevitable in the light of the financial crisis engulfing the country.”

3.5 The Charteris report can serve as a useful reference tool with regard to interpreting the duties of the 1964 Act but the pressures on local authorities and government policy have radically changed since it was written. It addresses very specific circumstances and the generalities it draws out may not longer be as relevant as they were.

3.6 More broadly, as a council, we have always been mindful of our duties to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library services in a modern way—our plans for libraries have at all times been formulated with this in mind, something which was acknowledged in the recent judicial review on this subject.

4. The impact library closures have on local communities

4.1 The impact of library closures will vary very considerably from location to location and library to library. Clearly in the case of a well-used central library, the impact could be considerable and affect a significant number of people. In other cases, the impact will be less—for example where libraries are less well used, or serve a smaller catchment area.

4.2 Authorities have a duty to consider what is the most efficient and effective means of spending council budgets and to take into consideration evidence about library use assessment of needs. The impacts of library service change proposals on the people who share protected characteristics also need to be considered as part of this.

4.3 The impact can be mitigated by looking at alternatives. In Gloucestershire, we have looked at community libraries, where local people are supported to continue library services outside the statutory library service, as a way of mitigating the impact of closures. Other options we have considered include enhancing our virtual library and library clubs for older people and people with disabilities.

4.4 By involving local people in the development of community libraries we think that there could be possibilities for greater ownership of the service at a local level with a good understanding of local needs and use of local skills to open up opportunities to broaden the role of the library as a flexible community. We believe this can help to significantly reduce the impact of service reductions.

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

5.1 Clearly, the Secretary of State’s powers of intervention under the Museums and Libraries Act are significant. They allow for the overriding of local council decision making if exercised, although they should not be seen in isolation. The Government more broadly remains a crucial funding source for all councils and has historically used its control over council budgets to significant effect in shaping council policy. The Secretary of State also has considerable powers of influence, both in private and via the media, which he can deploy to influence local authorities. We would encourage restraint and moderation in the use of any of these “levers”.

5.2 The Government is expecting all councils to deliver significant savings and councils’ ability to offset savings with tax increases is severely limited, given both regulatory constraints and public resistance to council tax rises.

5.3 Given this, libraries must not be singled out as a special case more important than others services, such as care for the elderly, fire and rescue etc which councils deliver. There are difficult decisions about the allocation of limited resources to be made and it is our belief that, wherever possible, those decisions are made by locally elected councillors, who will be held accountable at elections for their decisions. Obliging councils to spend more than they intend in one area can only result in either further reductions in other areas or increased taxes for local residents.

5.4 Moreover, councillors are better placed than the Secretary of State to take into account local factors in their areas and to identify solutions that take those needs into account. We believe this is entirely in keeping with the localism agenda advocated by all three major political parties.

5.5 As such, we would argue that powers of intervention must only be used very sparingly—if at all. Before any such intervention, we would also strongly encourage discussion and persuasion before any formal intervention was contemplated.

January 2012

Prepared 5th November 2012