Briefing Paper for Libraries Taskforce visit to Swindon

BRIEFING PAPER FOR TASKFORCE VISIT TO SWINDON

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  1.          BACKGROUND
  2.          PROPOSED LIBRARY PROVISION
  3.          LIBRARIES IN SWINDON’S DEPRIVED AREAS
  4.          STATUTORY STATUS, ACCOUNTABILITY & SUSTAINABILITY
  5.          GROWTH OF SWINDON
  6.          SWINDON’S DEMOGRAPHICS
  7.          COSTS AND BENEFITS
  8.          CONCLUSION & RECOMMENDATIONS

 

1.  Background

Swindon was one of the last communities of any size in England to adopt the Public Libraries Acts that pre-dated current legislation.  Swindon opened its first public library on 16th August 1943 in the middle of World War II and extreme economic hardship.  It might be observed that priorities and principles differed markedly at that time from the ideology espoused by government today.

 

1.1 Current Library Provision in Swindon

Swindon is currently served by a central library and 14 further public libraries, plus a mobile library service.  The Borough Council’s recent draft budget contemplates a cut of 65% to Libraries by 2020 and the divestment of most/all of its libraries to Parishes and community groups – which, it should be noted, are not Library Authorities for the purpose of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

 

1.2 Our High-Performance Library Service

The latest CIPFA data reveals that 1,049,172 people visited Swindon Libraries between April 2014 and March 2015.  Further analysis also reveals that Swindon came 17th out of 204 councils with regard to ‘library performance’ and ranked in third place for the number of active borrowers per 1,000 of population (out of 16 comparator authorities graded on “engaging with the public”).  These are great achievements which, we claim, should be recognised and built upon, not discounted or destroyed.

 

 2.  Proposed Library Provision in Swindon’s new Draft Budget

“Some services and facilities traditionally provided by the Council, such as street cleaning, grounds maintenance and libraries, would have significantly reduced funding from the Council and support will be given instead to existing parish councils or communities to run them themselves.  A Library Service Strategy is being developed to be presented to the Council’s Cabinet in February 2016 for consultation, which assumes a reduction in Council spend on the service of at least £1.5m, or 65%, by 2020, and a Community Governance Review has just been launched to consider whether existing parish council boundaries should be changed or new councils established in 2017.”

3. Libraries in Swindon’s Deprived Areas

Deprived areas present special problems, including health-related and educational needs (‘education’ here including both orthodox and digital literacy), which call out for the retention of Swindon’s professionally-run and staffed libraries.  The DCMS ‘Taking Part Survey’ reported that “People in the least deprived areas (48%) have almost double the digital participation rate of people in the most deprived areas, (24.5%)”.  The proposed changes to library provision in Swindon not only contradict the council’s desire to support orthodox literacy, the ‘right to education’ and the delivery of the Reading Agency’s programmes, all of which are currently enjoying cross-party support, but also to its ambition to increase digital participation.

 

3.1 Of the public libraries in Swindon vulnerable to the new budget proposals, to “transfer” them out of the Borough Council’s control to Parishes and community groups, there are no fewer than five (5) located in areas of High Deprivation:  Even Swindon Library, Park Library, Penhill Library, Pinetrees Library and Walcot Library (Gorse Hill Library, with a similarly high IMD ranking was closed and replaced by the mobile service).  The Central Library, Moredon Library and Upper Stratton Library’s IMD rankings are also uncomfortably close to that highest quartile.   Deprivation Data, Source:  The Church Urban Fund Parish Profiles

3.2 There is a school of thought that would suggest physical libraries have limited or no place in the digital age. This is not a view that should be espoused by the Taskforce or by the Borough Council.  A professionally-run, accessible public library is an asset very much at the heart of the community.

3.3 Swindon’s public libraries are eminently qualified to foster healthy living, community inclusion, orthodox & digital literacy and independence for all residents of the Town, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, frail, elderly, visually impaired or disabled.  Reducing our libraries’ ability to function properly and professionally will not contribute to “tackling social care issues before they arise”, an aim recently asserted by the leader of Swindon Council in the local newspaper. Source: Swindon Advertiser, 7th January 2016

 4. Statutory Status, Standards, Accountability & Sustainability

Parish councils and community groups are not local authorities for the purpose of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act

The introduction of the measures proposed will not only deprive residents of the consistent standard of service on which they have historically relied, but also deprive them of many of their democratic rights:  (i) to be able to hold the Council properly to account; (ii)  citizens having: no access to CIPFA data, given that divested libraries are not included in CIPFA statistics; (iii)  no recourse to FoI responses about their library, as records may no longer be maintained by the Council;  and, crucially, (iv) no democratic right of appeal to the Secretary of State with regard to any concerns about a deterioration in service.   Accountability and transparency are thus seriously undermined, with consequences that will be significant.

4.1 Other local authorities who have introduced similar measures have seen catastrophic falls in usage and deterioration of the service provided.  I can forward these to the Taskforce, on request.  Does Swindon wish to emulate them and will the Taskforce be reluctant to raise these issues with officers and councillors?  I trust not.

4.2 Transformation programmes such as those contemplated for our library service present a great risk of failure and there is a need to balance ambition and realism.  To our knowledge, there is no effective, evidence-based mechanism for judging in advance whether Parishes and community groups have either the capacity or capability to deliver a library service, meaning that the overall picture is opaque.  It is feared that the council’s proposals are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term and, to all intents and purposes, are ‘closures by the back door’.  For the avoidance of doubt, the Taskforce should recommend that the council present a Plan B alongside the Library Strategy envisaged, to provide for the possibility that its current proposals may be found to be unachievable or inadequate.  This Plan B should feature in all future public consultation.

5. Growth of Swindon - Swindon ranked third out of the top 10 cities and towns in the south with the highest population growth 2004-2013, seeing a rise of 14.8%.  That was more than double the rate elsewhere in the south of the UK (including London) which averaged a growth of 5.5%.  Only two cities outside the south (Northampton and Cardiff) featured in this top 10. Data source: CENTRE FOR CITIES/ONS as reported in The Guardian: January 2015

5.1 Ours is a developing, growing and vibrant Town where many investors and workers will wish to put down roots.  The loss of most or all of its statutory Library Service contemplated in the Draft Budget proposals demonstrates that insufficient attention is being paid to the benefits of retaining a viable library service in a growing and developing Swindon, for the whole populace, into the future.

 

6. Swindon’s Demographics

6.1 Swindon’s BME Communities, and Community Cohesion - The change in the structure of ethnicity in Swindon is one of the most striking developments in the population between 2001 and 2011.  The proportion of BME people in Swindon doubled from 8.5% (15,344 people) in 2001 to 15.4% (32,128 people) in 2011.  The Asian/Asian British group, moreover, tripled in size.  It is relevant that the Swindon Advertiser reported on 9th November 2015 that the first group of Syrian refugees would arrive in the following few weeks, with “more set to follow in the New Year”.  Access to a local, well-run public library is always, once housing needs have been met, a key need for new arrivals to seek information and access to support services, reading materials and friendship.  The refugees in particular will need high-functioning public libraries acutely, as they make efforts to orientate themselves and settle into an alien environment.

6.2 Swindon’s Elderly & Disabled, and Community Cohesion - The largest growth in Swindon between 2001 and 2011 was in people aged 85 to 89, a group which grew by 48.6%.  Evidence suggests that this trend continues.  These people rely on their good quality, accessible public libraries as they become frail.  They do not want to be rendered prematurely housebound by having to accept a reduced service. The social and economic costs of any quasi abandonment will impact on the council’s future expenditure. There are significant numbers of elderly and disabled people in both deprived and less deprived areas of Swindon who will benefit now and in the future from having a public library within easy reach of home.  The RNIB has recently responded to the council’s draft budget consultation, detailing why an estimated 5,300 people living with sight loss in Swindon, of whom 620 are living with severe sight loss (blindness), rely on their physical, local public libraries.

6.3 Religion, and Community Cohesion - The 2011 Census recorded that people from the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions were represented in every Ward in the Borough. The book stock and services currently provided in a local public library are sensitive to the needs of each neighbourhood. This level of service depends on the professional and accountable service currently offered.  Source: The Elderly, BME Communities, Religion:  Census 2011 Profile Number One – Population Overview of Swindon

6.4 School children’s Access to Library Services, and Community Cohesion

It is fundamental that consideration should be given as to whether local schools have an in-house school library and/or school librarian and the number of children who will need to rely on their nearest public library.  Children need access to a safe library space in which to study during out-of-school hours when there is nowhere quiet at home.  That means a public library they can readily reach on foot for quiet study, choosing books; taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge and other programmes tailored to their needs and using the public computer(s), all of which ought to be under the supervision of paid library staff with the required expertise.  Pre-school children and their parents also rely on access to a nearby public library to give them a good start in life, for Story Time and to enjoy the company of other toddlers and their carers/parents from the same neighbourhood.

In the document ‘Reading: the next steps’ Nick Gibb MP, when he was Minister of State for School Reform, stated that: “Libraries [also] have an important role to play in children’s reading habits.  The Government would like all children to be active members of a public library and we are asking all schools to arrange library membership for all their Year 3 pupils.”  Where will Swindon’s children find a good quality public library within easy reach if the Council’s draft budget proposals come to fruition?

7. Costs and Benefits of Swindon’s Libraries

The Taskforce will be aware that significant research into the economic, educational, social & environmentalcosts and benefits of public libraries in the UK and abroad are in the public domain and accessible for study. This information ought to inform all Impact Assessments that the Council, I understand, intends to undertake.  It should be borne in mind that a consequence of abandoning the Borough’s public libraries to bodies outside statutory control in the short or longer term could well be an onerous increase in future costs to the Council.  Future demands on Swindon’s budgets, as a result, could far outweigh the savings currently proposed. Undoubtedly, there will be severe cost consequences as a result of any errors being made.

 

8. Conclusion and Recommendations:

  • The scope of the proposed cuts to Swindon’s libraries budget is disproportionate and dismaying.  It is very sad that the cuts from central government to our council and its current ideology appear to have precipitated or encouraged these drastic measures.
  • We fear that unless the Taskforce focuses on the realities here on the ground, and discusses these issues with council officers and members, that Swindon’s excellent professionally-run library network will be damaged beyond repair.

We recommend that, for the avoidance of doubt, the Taskforce:

o   urge Swindon Borough Council and other local authorities to employ an effective, evidence-based mechanism for judging in advance of consultation if Parishes and community groups and other non-statutory entities have either the capacity or capability to deliver a library service fit for the future – and publish their conclusions – before any Library Strategy is agreed in principle;

o   advise the Council that the Impact Assessments which it intends to undertake be informed by that evidence, and other evidence that has been published in the UK and abroad as to the economic and social benefits of public libraries for the whole populace;

o   insist that Swindon Borough Council formulate and publish a Plan B , to insure against any risk that the proposals might (a) conflict with statutory duties and/or (b) any risk that the proposals might be unachievable in the short and longer term – not least because errors will fatally undermine the Council’s credibility;

o   suggest that urgent consideration be given as to whether Swindon’s local schools have an in-house school library and/or school librarian and make a projection as to the number of children who will need to rely on their nearest public library as a key resource for books and information (orthodox and digital) into the future;

o   urge the Council and Taskforce members to consider all material facts carefully, including those that might detract from their own opinions, whilst …

o   making it clear that if a question or issue falls outside the scope of the Council’s expertise or the expertise of the Taskforce – or if  a definite opinion cannot be reached because there is insufficient information – that the missing information be sought and that the public be notified of it in advance of any consultation exercise;

o   encourage Swindon Borough Council and the DCMS to contemplate whether Swindon’s draft budget proposals will result in a comprehensive and efficient library service, under s.7 of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act;

o   ensure that this visit by the Taskforce to Swindon not be treated as a mere fact-finding mission to be buried in a future Report, but welcomed as an opportunity to work with the Council to promote mechanisms that will safeguard a high standard of library provision in Swindon.

 

We thank the Taskforce for their visit and trust that they will show no reluctance to bring all the above issues to the attention of Swindon’s officers and elected members, as well as to Ministers at the DCMS and officers of the Local Government Association.

We respectfully request feedback and action from both the Taskforce and the Council that will address our concerns.

 

Shirley Burnham – Chair, Save Old Town Library Campaign

Marilyn Beale – Secretary, Penhill Forum

Jane Milner-Barry – Committee Member, Pipers Area Residents’ Association; Secretary, Friends of the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery;  Secretary, Swindon Open Studios and Labour candidate, Old Town and East Wichel Ward

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