Big Society proposals for York Gardens Library

Author: Cyril Richert

The Council has been determined to reduce the library services and to pursue with its plan to shut down services at York Garden Library to save money.

However, the simple close of all services provided in the deprived area faced a strong outcry from local residents and deep concerns in other part of the borough. We were not the biggest voice against the targeting of this public service, but we published our opinion with an explicit title: Hall of shame.

Thus Wandsworth Borough Council was probably facing two sides:

  1. On the one hand it couldn’t withdraw a policy that it defended, without being seen as agreeing with the Labour opposition;
  2. on the second hand they heard the arguments and the opposition to what many considered as a completely unfair and unbalanced decision. [1]

During the meeting organised last December, Jane Ellison, Battersea MP, paved the way to the “exit-solution”, using the PR friendly idea set up by Conservatives spin-doctors: the “Big-Society” stuff (even on Conservatives websites they put quotes as nobody knows what it means exactly…).

It was confirmed on her website later as she wrote:

Battersea’s MP has warmly welcomed the new proposals for continuing services at York Gardens Library which involve council staff, community groups, local schools and volunteers.

A proposal was indeed presented before the Environment, Culture and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Monday, 28th February, 2011 and approved (by 6 votes to 0 with 2 abstentions from Labour Councillors).

The report from the Director of Leisure and Amenity Services on the Library Review, following public and stakeholder consultation, proposes:

  1. The introduction of reduced opening hours at all libraries (except Tooting).
  2. The development (on a trial basis) of a ‘Big Society’ pilot project at York Gardens Library using reduced staffing supported by volunteers (the aim is to still offer a children’s library service,with some adults’ provision, a homework club, public-access I.T. facilities and community space provision); the UK On-line IT training centre and its Tutor would transfer to Battersea Library [Option 4.]
  3. A report should be brought back to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and Executive after six months’ operation (October 2011 to March 2012)  in order to assess performance and any further development potential.
  4. The investigation of potential savings arranged with the involvement of private sector management of library services.
  5. Negative budget variations of £359,460 in 2011/12 and £718,920 in a full year

In a previous report,  it was said that the Council would save £219,000 per year by closing the York gardens library only, but the cost to retain some service was estimated to be £92,000 (that would reduce the saving to £127,000 per year) ; on the other hand, the council could save £53,000 per year just by reducing the opening hours. It means the difference between closing the library and reducing the opening hours is just £74,000 per year (less than 59 pence extra per year  in Council tax).

The Consultation

The result of the consultation on the future of the library service in Wandsworth showed that 1,201 Survey Forms had been submitted. 205 short surveys had also been created by the Save York Gardens Library Campaign. Stakeholders have also submitted Library Review Survey Forms on behalf of their organisations or communicated their views at meetings or via letter and email. A total of 184 letters and emails, including 12 from community or stakeholder organisations were also received by the Council.

Regarding specifically the York Garden library questionnaire, the analysis indicated that (from page 10):

  • 71% strongly or tended to disagree with the closure of York Gardens Library
  • 58% strongly or tended to disagree with closure plus an outreach service for children and moving the IT Learning Centre to Battersea Library.
  • 40% strongly or tended to agree with reduced opening hours from 44 to 30 hours per week whilst 34% strongly or tended to disagree with this proposal.

In its report the Director agreed with most of the point raised by opponents of the closure. He wrote, for example, that “retaining some form of children’s library provision could be considered since, although alternative provision at Battersea Library is little more than half a mile away, it is recognised that access for families and children would be more challenging.

The Big Society idea

The report also highlighted that Thomas’s Schools Foundation has expressed concerns on deprived elements of the community in the Battersea area. During a discussion with the Council representatives the Foundation expressed interest in offering support to, for example, maintaining a children’s library and homework club presence on the site of the York library (thus the “Big Society” aspiration).

Another opportunity could be to claim government’s support (meaning also funding!) to develop the idea of “Big Society” within public services’ staff who want to take over and run their services as mutual organisations (don’t ask me what it means exactly – not a clue ; public sector workers to volunteer to do the same work but unpaid?).

But, although trying to please Conservative aspiration, the Director is not naive and wrote (as a warning?) in its report:

During 2009/10, the Service had 90 volunteers working in libraries, 50 were new and 40 continued from the previous year, representing a turnover of 55%. Experience suggests that, after initial enthusiasm, volunteer fatigue will develop and increased efforts will be required on a continual basis to maintain the pool of volunteers across the Borough. Some volunteers are out of work who then give up volunteering when they find employment. If Option 4 is approved, officers will look to establish the feasibility of recruiting suitable volunteers, in appropriate numbers, to develop a strategy for using paid staff and volunteers to maintain extended opening times.

His report is however supportive of the option above, giving 2 reasons:

  1. The weight of interest from the public and organisations (ready to contribute to the running costs of a continuing library presence).
  2. The involvement of private sector schools, another and volunteers providing an opportunity to demonstrate the Tory idea of a “Big Society” project.

Cost and Savings

The savings target to be achieved could be the £127,000 saving of retaining some services vs closing fully, plus the saving of a full-time Senior Library Assistant of £28,915 per annum that were part of the Children’s Outreach service. This gives a total saving of £155,915 per annum.

However we can read further on that the pilot will only achieve the £155,900 saving if community lettings income and the partnerships with Thames Christian College and Thomas’s Schools Foundation are maintained. Should this not be the case then some of the operating costs may revert to the Council. The costs for converting the Library for use under the pilot are presently estimated to be £50,000 and will be contained within approved revenue budgets.

The consequences for the York Gardens library users

The decision is on a trial 12 months’ basis, consisting of use of the York Gardens building for:

  1. additional first-floor use for classrooms (while retaining bookable community space at non-classroom use times) by Thames Christian College, with associated additional income;
  2. accommodating the Learning Resources Service of the Children’s Services Department with an associated contribution to the building’s running costs;
  3. operation of a Homework Club on two or three evenings a week, supported by staff and volunteers;
  4. operation of a Children’s Library for 30 hours by staff including some limited adult stock (see paragraph 69 below for proposals regarding staffing structure) with support from volunteers;
  5. a range of public-access I.T. facilities;
  6. agreement of a partnership with the Thomas’s Schools Foundations for volunteers and any other resources available to support the Homework Club and Children’s Library as set out in iii) and iv) above; and
  7. maintenance of a lettable community space

[1] There is a statutory duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient public library service for all persons to make use thereof’: Section 7, Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

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