by Laura Swaffield, Chair of The Library Campaign.
We were following Simon Draper, from Save Lincs Libraries, in his judicial review against the county’s utter determination to wreck its library service. Even though its entire population seems to disagree – strongly.
Listening to the to-and-fro showed me as never before how daft this plan is – if you can really call it a plan – and how utterly pig-headed is the county’s attitude.
At one point the urbane judge murmured: ‘I’ve never before come across a consultation exercise where everyone who responded said – “Don’t do it!” That was after he had gently enquired whether anyone at all had approved of the plans. ‘No, my lord,’ admitted the county’s hapless barrister. That, it seems, was not considered relevant by Lincs CC!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
A JR does not seek to establish whether a plan is daft, or damaging, or universally hated. It can only decide if the plan contravenes the law.
From the start, the judge, Mr Justice Collins, showed he was being totally scrupulous about that. He could only pronounce on the law. Pursuing the law, however, gave us some of the most surreal exchanges of the whole affair.
What the hell is a 'super mobile' and an 'access mobile'? Its all gone a bit Monty Python! #libraryjudicialreview
— Elizabeth (@ElizCro) July 9, 2014
The bit about the consultation was the best. Consultations, says the law, MUST be held at a ‘formative’ stage – when the plan can be reversed if people hate it.
The county’s barrister, Helen Mountfield QC, is by all accounts a decent and competent practitioner. But the things she found herself having to say!
Astonished that lawyer for the council is pointing out repeatedly the very loud objections to the consultation #libraryjudicialreview
— The Library Campaign (@LibraryCampaign) July 9, 2014
The judge doggedly pursued the point that the county’s plan – as presented in the consultation document – was in fact a done deal. Anyone reading it, he insisted, would assume that – and would assume there was no point arguing about it.
Not so, said Helen. I’m not sure I quite followed her argument (it was hard to hear). But she seemed to say that in fact, large numbers of people had been able to find bits in the consultation form that enabled them to express their total opposition! So that meant that…er… The judge was not convinced by this strange argument.
Helen did, in fact, succeed in making it super-clear that Lincs CC was not willing to consider any alternative to its ruthless closure plan. They had worked on it for ages, she pleaded. They wanted to re-design the service at all costs. It was a ‘political’ decision, she said. The judge, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem to think any of this was relevant.
Lincs CC, it emerged, believes in the Big Society even if nobody else does. It was determined to give local communities the chance to ‘get involved’ in their libraries – by having to run them, whether they wanted to or not.
The county held on to this goal, even when it received a bid from GLL (the non-profit social enterprise that already successfully runs two library services). GLL said it could make the required savings while still keeping all the libraries open, improving the service, keeping on all the 160-plus staff faced with the sack under Lincs CC’s plan – oh, and ensuring community involvement in all the libraries.
This, the judge suggested, would be what all the Lincs campaigners wanted… He was right about that. But instead, Lincs CC preferred to sack all these staff and close 29 libraries, keeping only 15 able to offer the statutory service it is obliged by law to provide.
Its plan, it emerged, fully recognised that it was unlikely these 29 libraries would survive as volunteer enterprises. Hence statutory status for the lucky 15. This seems a pretty mad way to try to prove the Lincs CC plan was a good one – or that the consultation was genuine.
There was more. Did Lincs CC ask GLL for more information before it turned its bid down flat because… er… they wanted more information? No, they didn’t.
Helen went round in circles trying to prove that GLL’s bid was not in the right form, or didn’t come at the right time, or something. That didn’t seem to work.
She did establish clearly, however, that Lincs CC had absolutely no intention of even considering any proposals except those from individual communities to run individual libraries.
If this is making a good case, the law must indeed be an ass.
Well, maybe it won’t turn out to be an ass.
The judge impressed us all. He was sharp, courteous, fully in command of the huge files of court material, displayed common sense – and occasionally made it easy to guess what he was really thinking…
He did, very conscientiously, pick holes in Save Lincs Libraries’ case. But on occasions, he was heard to use the word ‘nonsense’ – always when commenting on a Lincs CC argument.
Save Lincs Libraries, in the person of Simon Draper, had four grounds for contesting Lincs CC’s plan.
Ground no 1 was the inadequacy – one might say bloody-mindedness – of the consultation process. The decision had clearly been taken, irrevocably, before the consultation ever started. That’s against the law.
Given the Alice-in-Wonderland justifications provided by Lincs CC, it’s hard to believe the judge will find the consultation met the legal requirements.
Ground no 2 was about failure to prevent the harm the plan would do to many vulnerable people – old, disabled, young families etc etc (public bodies have a legal duty to pay attention to upholding equality).
There was some argument here whether this implies actually doing anything to mitigate inequality, once the matter has been considered.
And some glorious confusion about access mobiles, super-mobiles and ordinary mobiles. More surreality, courtesy of Lincs CC.
However, the judge made it pretty clear that this one won’t succeed.
Save Lincs Libraries’ lawyer, David Lawson, had only tried to argue a slightly obscure point about travelling times. In the end it didn’t wash. The law – as opposed to common sense – doesn’t provide clear arguments to pursue.
Shame. It’s a vital consideration, surely. But there you are.
Ground no 3 was Lincs CC’s refusal even to consider properly the attractive bid made by GLL. This one looks good. It was obvious that Lincs CC had been unreasonable – irrational, even.
Cross your fingers. It will be a huge gain for all of us if this JR finds that library services really must consider suggestions of alternative ways to make savings – ways that don’t involve mass
closures and/or dumping most of your service on to volunteers who hate the whole idea.
Ground no 4 was our old friend ‘comprehensive and efficient’. This is always a shaky one, due to the DCMS’s refusal to show any interest in the matter – let alone give any hint of what C &E might be accepted to mean.
You might think that it would be hard for Lincs CC to prove that 15 statutory libraries would provide as C & E a service as the 44 they currently have. But we’ll have to see.
The Library Campaign takes off its hat to Save Lincs Libraries. This JR was a brilliant effort.
It deserves to succeed. For the sake of library users everywhere.
Judgement expected by 31 July.