Libraries, raised tempers and Gloucestershire County Council
As regular readers of this blog will know we like starting debates and we even like criticism. In fact we recently wrote a post dedicated to the well thought through and constructive criticism we have received from various people who read our blog. We write the blog in good faith and welcome people with an interest in local government to join the debate; whether they agree with us or not.
I mention this because the post written by one of my colleagues last Thursday generated the sort of comment we’ve never seen before.
For those who missed it the WLLG blogger argued that there needed be a real debate about libraries and suggested that:
Those who think we can abolish libraries and move to kindles or book share only (I’ve heard it said) are as mistaken as those that think we can simply protect the porta-cabin library in each village and change nothing; which of course isn’t to say that in some locations a porta cabin village library might not be appropriate. However, if we meet in the middle we’ll be able to find solutions that meet all needs and that might just involve book share, libraries in supermarkets, kindles, web services, part time libraries, flexible public spaces, mobile libraries, traditional library buildings and everything in between.
But that’s not, I think, what annoyed people. He then took a brief detour into the world of judicial reviews and argued:
Despite this I would still disagree with the judicial review. The cuts being made by local authorities are next to impossible and if every small group is able to go to high court to challenge the change it will be impossible to do anything at all. I don’t therefore disagree with any of the individual judgments as such; just the principle of it.
The readers of our blog took offence at his reference to them as being ‘small’ and seemed to forget that his argument was not against any individual judgement but more about the principles of judicial reviews.
Nonetheless, the response to his flippant reference to these groups as small (probably a little unwise), both on the blog and on twitter, was unusually angry.
My favourite was the author who said:
I doubt if the people running this blog are representative of local government officers. I suspect it to be the creation of some young men and women in a hurry to get to the top, who think closing some libraries will look good on their cvs.
And the tweeter who suggested:
‘wonder if someone’s stirring the pot so’s to divide & rule’
However, amongst the odd vitriolic comments (from both sides) there were some really passionate responses, particularly from authors who are campaigning in Gloucestershire. In particular, it is worth reading this from Demelza who argued:
I, and many others in Gloucestershire, don’t believe the administration should be able to get away with this, and having exhausted all other avenues, supporting the JR seemed the only option – nor a decision that was taken lightly. It has been extremely stressful and time-consuming dealing with all the media attention and debate and criticism that has come from this, and no small feat to try and raise the many thousands of pounds required by the Legal Sevices Commission as ‘community contribution’ towards the costs of the case.
I believe, in principal, that JRs shouldn’t be necessary, and that councillors should respond and reflect the needs/concerns of their tax payers/electorate, and should not embark on plans where their are clear concerns, from several sources, of illegality. Clearly though this has not been happening in Gloucestershire with regard to the library cuts.
With this in mind, and recognising that we try not to comment on individual local authorities but instead focus on principles and sector wide issues I decided to do some reading. What I found is a complex picture of an authority struggling to make huge budget cuts, a library service facing HUGE cuts and a community that didn’t feel listened to despite the councils attempts at a widespread consultation. In other words it shows some of the best and worst of the problems facing the whole of the sector right now.
Getting to the bottom of what is actually going on is difficult so being the unashamed local government officers that we are I decided to delve into the committee report that was agreed at the council.
The report does not make happy reading for anyone who cares about local government. Gloucestershire Country Council was being asked to make the following savings:
The total of these adjustments, which have been incorporated into the MTFS, produces a budget for 2011/12 of £396.156m. Council tax remains at £1090.50 for a band D property with no increase for 2011/12. Over the four year period the savings required to balance the budget are £114m compared with £108m at the time of the draft budget. This increase is due to the lower than expected settlement. Further details are set out in the attached MTFS.
That’s a huge reduction in spending; even for a large county council. The council is lopping off over a quarter of its budget.
The council ran a (much criticised) consultation asking people which services they should protect and the answers were the following:
• Care of older people
• Care for vulnerable adults
• Child protection and care for vulnerable children
• Fire & Rescue
• Supporting thousands of voluntary carers
Anyone who works in Local Government knows that the majority of the council budget is taken up with five services: the top three above along with Highways and waste. In County councils only the top three are within scope so my bet is that they massively dominate all spending. Thus, any protection of those five services (which make up maybe 2/3rds to 3/4s of any unitary council’s budget), or even three of them, means disproportionate cuts to everything else. It is this which probably led to the eye watering 43% (yes, you read that correctly; 43%!) cut in the libraries budget.
Once they had protected all those other services it probably became necessary to cut deep elsewhere (1 in 6 staff were to be made redundant as well!) and by the looks of it that included libraries.
So does that mean I am defending GCC’s decision?
The consultation on which the decisions were based is always a slightly dangerous way to make policy. In the abstract most people would rather protect services to vulnerable people than services which meet an important need but are not individually ‘essential’ in the same way.
However, in practice this is not always the case when the reality of what that means really hits home, especially when the services being cut are ones that communities rely on such as libraries, children centres and youth clubs (three services facing tough times in the latest cut rounds). Plus, a consultation can never meet the necessary amount of people to make it meaningful.
That role is for councillors and the democratic process and it seems that this may have been where the proposals did not match the expectations of the community.
So, what do I make of the Gloucestershire decision?
In the whole it demonstrates the difficulty local authorities are having in making these cuts so quickly. Ideally, a 40% cut in the libraries service (if necessary) and the development of new models would be done over a 3-5 year period with maximum engagement and involvement of local groups and service users. Proposals would be phased in and models tested. Money would be available during this time to ensure some form of continuity. None of this has happened and it seems the model has been decided by officers and then presented to the public.
The speed of these cuts prevented this happening and is having the same effect elsewhere.
In addition, this sorry tale demonstrates that finding the balance between the cuts is incredibly difficult. Its possible GCC got it wrong and have not acted appropriately in the way they’ve responded to campaigners and others but I for one do not envy them the job.
It is too simple to say that more money for libraries means taking money away from vulnerable adults (apparently that argument has been made) but equally the decisions being made by councillors and senior officers are of a nature never seen before and are not easy at all.
In a world which likes to see everything in black and white I hope this post demonstrates the vast shades of grey that those of us working in, and aiming to protect and reform, local government services are dealing with every week.
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