On Monday 19th October 2015, Vicky Devaney stood up and made both her own and the voice of thousands of Bromley residents and library employees heard. She addressed the full council meeting regarding their proposals to hand the six community libraries – Hayes, Burnt Ash, Shortlands, Southborough, Mottingham and St Pauls Cray – over to volunteers and delivered the following speech:
In August this year (Telegraph, 2015) Nicky Morgan the education secretary pledged that every junior school child in the country will be enrolled in a local library. She stated the following “Improving children’s literacy should be a national mission… No matter where they live or what their background, every single child in this country deserves the opportunity to read, to read widely, and to read well.”
I first heard of the Council’s plans for community libraries in May and started a petition prevent this from happening. In just one month we were able collect over 1,700 paper signatures and over 1,200 online. That’s nearly 3,000 in total.
Most of the people I spoke to had no idea about the council’s plans, despite the consultation, this in itself raises concerns. Library staff were not instructed to publicise the consultation and the questionnaires were kept out of sight only handed out if asked for. This begs the question- why bother having a consultation if you don’t want to get as many responses as possible?
Those who did complete the survey found the questions leading and difficult to follow. I had to read some several times over in order to understand them. I think that this made the questionnaire inaccessible for many. A fairer survey would have been clear, concise and better publicised.
According to the post-consultation report published in March this year, more than eighteen hundred people completed a survey -this is only 3% of active Bromley library users. Results showed that 83% of respondents were in favour of the libraries being run directly by the council (3.4.39) and that 51% were not overall supportive of the council’s proposals (3.4.58). The recurrent theme in the council’s focus groups was the need for professional, paid and qualified staff, and that the library was “more than a room full of books”.
Since 2012, Bromley Council has spent over £80,000 on consultations on the future of library services, including the recent one, ending in September which seemed to repeat many of the questions posed in the one in January. This represents poor value given that the council states we need to save £60 million across its services.
The Council believes that handing the libraries over to volunteers is an efficient option but this is not the case. Libraries would be reliant on free labour, volunteers are difficult to timetable and rely on therefore the library might have to shut at a moments’ notice. Qualified staff members will need to train the volunteers to ensure that they are maintaining legal service levels but many volunteers will be job seekers, therefore their assistance will only ever be temporary. This means there will be a high turnover of volunteers and an ongoing need for training at further cost to our Council.
Opening hours might be cut, Fallowfield Community Library in Manchester was open 30 hours a week in 2012 but since being handed over to volunteers it now opens for just 15 hours a week. http://www.citysouthmanchester.co.uk/Latest-news/A-new-chapter-for-Fallowfield-Library-8491284)
Handing over libraries to volunteers is likely to lead to decreased library usage.(http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/2011/12/lewisham-usage-collapses.html) After Lewisham borough outsourced its community libraries in 2010, there was on average a 78% reduction in book issues in the first year. In Manchester, visitor numbers have plummeted by as much as 90% (http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/manchester-library-visitor-numbers-fall-8491284) since they became volunteer-run. Bromley Council should not be so quick to agree to a strategy when there is no actual proof of its success.
Will these community libraries be able to maintain current standards? Will they be able to provide a good service to local children, many of whom live in deprived areas? Will they be able to help children with choosing books and researching projects? Given that Bromley Council are encouraging all of their amenities to be online now, will community libraries be able to continue to help those who need it to access these services? After all, in Bromley’s 2014 Libraries consultation, 21% of the sample stated they do not have access to the internet at home (ref Equality Impact Assessment Form, Library Service Strategy, Paula Young 8th Jan 2015). Who will oversee IT, book stock, purchasing, and the maintenance of the building? Who will monitor and assess the service offered? Will the move actually save any money, given the need for ongoing training and coordinating volunteers?
Bromley council’s proposal increases the likelihood that we will go without adequate, inclusive services. Many residents see it as a short-sighted, unsustainable model which will inevitably lead to closure. Libraries are a symbol of a town’s values and the residents of this Conservative Bromley borough have repeatedly said that they want to retain the current library service, professionally managed and developed by passionate, skilled library staff.
We, residents of Bromley borough are legally entitled to a library service that delivers not only books but is a free public access point to information. It is not just about saving jobs, it’s about receiving that to which we are legally entitled.
Following the superbly delivered speech, the council then had the opportunity to debate how to respond to it. Whilst this debate has been described as laughable the response by a Conservative Bromley councillor was utterly disgraceful. He categorically failed to respond to the facts and statistics presented in the speech and instead read a pre-prepared piece from his ipad which revealed nothing new and certainly nothing that hasn’t already been communicated to both Bromley workers and residents.
Although the campaign seemed to have the support of the Labour councillors, when it came down to the vote they were overwhelmed by the Conservative majority. These Conservative councillors voted strongly in favour of continuing with their plans to hand these libraries over to volunteers.
Bromley Council are to hold several other meetings over the coming weeks regarding the future of this vitally important service.
Now more than ever it’s time to consider our next steps very carefully. However, if one thing’s for certain, the fight to save Bromley Libraries must go on!