Lancashire County Council are proposing, subject to further consultation, the reorganisation of its library service (currently 73 libraries). A summary of what the reorganisation entails is to be found in the Appendix to this note but, in short, it involves the total closure of 29 branch libraries and reduction of seven others to self-service status, retaining only 37 (including the central library in Preston) as fully staffed.
The council is facing severe financial pressure, particularly in the areas of adult social care and waste management, and it is not the purpose of this note to suggest that additional money should be found to fund the library service. On the contrary, it is accepted that cost-effective solutions need to be found to meet the demands of financing a “comprehensive and efficient” service for all who wish to use it, as required by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 having regard in particular to the guidance on how such reorganisations should be structured set out in the report of the inquiry in the Wirral case.
There are alternatives to closures (with or without handing over branches to groups of volunteers) which will enable the service to continue (perhaps with closures of a relatively small number of non-viable branches) in a form which complies with the Act rather than adopting a fragmented and necessarily less cost-efficient solution. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the council is looking for such alternatives but rather seems to be wedded to proposals structured around a property-based assessment (a way of proceeding which violates the spirit of the Wirral report) and involving massive closures, an approach which will almost certainly lead to a challenge (by judicial review) to the decision on the grounds that the consultation has been a sham (because the issue has been predetermined) and/or a request to the DCMS for intervention (by the direction of a local inquiry). Every reasonable effort should be made to avoid the resolution of this matter proceeding down adversarial paths which would be a costly, time-consuming and generally a negative way to go.
By way of examples of possible (and not mutually exclusive) alternatives, the following need to be considered:
- Sharing the delivery of the service with other councils – close examination ought to be undertaken of the steps being taken in Greater Manchester towards the creation of single service in place of those provided by the individual boroughs;
- Appointing an outside entity to deliver the service – the use of a mutual to manage Devon’s libraries (without closures being required) warrants scrutiny and the carrying out of a market test via a tendering process (as Bromley and Bexley councils have recently done) to ascertain whether there might be interest in taking on the service as a whole, which is surely preferable to the fragmentation inherent in such approaches as individual community interest companies, and
- Seeking out whether there is room for internal efficiency improvements, notably in the way staff are deployed and timetabled and potentially with a targeted and planned usage of volunteers in smaller libraries: see the report prepared for Sutton Council which has enabled the preservation (with the closure of only one small branch and a mobile) of the service, at a greatly reduced cost.
[See Appendix for useful contacts and links in relation to the above-mentioned alternatives].
If legal challenge is to be avoided, the council will have to explain in the final consultation documents what has been done by way of examination (with an open mind) of potential alternatives. The onus is clearly on the council to do so. Yet there is no evident sign of a range of options having been put in front of elected Members to inform what is a very difficult decision. The council is still required to fulfil its duty of Best Value as described by the DCLG in 2011:
“The Duty of Best Value is important because it makes clear that councils should consider overall value – including social value – when considering service provision.” If it is still intent on pursuing a course of closures and a handing over of public assets, in the form of IT, book stock, shelving, furniture and equipment and potentially buildings, it needs to explain why the alternatives have been rejected and why it considers that the residual service will remain compliant with its statutory duty, its Equality duty and Best Value in service specification, and will, therefore, withstand a request for intervention by the DCMS.
Library services are well-recognised as important in many aspects, ranging from the advancement of literacy (orthodox and digital) to the economic value which they add to communities over and above their cost (see Appendix). They should not be the target of closures in the name of ‘quick fix’ and short-sighted costs-saving if costs can be saved without recourse to the axe and through the exercise of intelligent and strategic thinking.
Summary of Lancashire County Council’s proposed reorganisation of the library service:
The proposals for libraries are to reduce the number of fixed locations where people can access libraries from 73 to 44. It is proposed that 37 of these will offer a fully staffed service and seven will be ‘satellite’ libraries which are not staffed, but where people can use self-service counters to collect books which they have reserved and return books. This will be supported by the county council’s mobile library service (six vehicles operating 68 routes and 792 stops), home library service (which currently delivers books to 1,000 people at home) and virtual library services, which allows people to access e-books, e-audiobooks, and online reference service.
Wirral report (2009)
Greater Manchester – the creation of a single service is work in progress but the stage has been reached of moving towards unified borrowing facilities (note involvement of Blackburn)
Devon Libraries – as of 1st April 2016, the county’s library service has been provided by a staff and community owned social enterprise
[suggested contact: Ciara.firstname.lastname@example.org]
Dudley has also decided to pursue the mutual approach – [contact unknown] http://www.halesowennews.co.uk/news/13890156.Dudley_Council_set_to_create_a_mutual_to_run_libraries_and_associate_services/
York library services have been delivered by a mutual for two years, with the Cabinet Office providing some funding
(contact: Fiona Williams)
Suffolk has formed an IPS
(contact: Alison Wheeler)
Sutton Council – contact: Madeline Barratt, Head of Libraries, Heritage and Arts email@example.com
Bexley and Bromley
Economic value of libraries – see Public Libraries News, where the economic case for libraries is set out by reference to studies and examples from the UK and worldwide, notably the British Library and Bolton Council’s Economic Valuation based on contingent valuation, a method measuring what people would be prepared to pay for services like libraries if they were not available.
To be clear: the purpose of this document is not to question the need to make savings; this is well understood. Nor is it about exempting library services from the Government’s overall deficit reduction strategy. It is about a re-consideration of the emerging approaches which PLAs are adopting, faced with exactly the same challenges Lancashire County Council is facing now.