Libraries, raised tempers and Gloucestershire County Council

Shhh; no arguing in the library

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.

The response from Johanna also included a link to her piece detailing the library changes which is worth checking out.

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?

Not necessarily.

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.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line

Explore posts in the same categories: Big P Politics, The future of Local Govt, We love the Council

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9 Comments on “Libraries, raised tempers and Gloucestershire County Council”

  1. Shirley Burnham Says:

    You will find that your Blog features in the headline comment, 22nd Aug, on Public Libraries News, here :

    I hope that it might be possible for someone who has clearly thought these matters through and produced a well-balanced view, also to analyse another matter and bring it to the attention of your members. The elephant in the room is the issue of public libraries still being a statutory service and, should you have missed it, here in full is the author of the 1964 Act explaining how it applies to central government and local authorities :

    With kind regards.

  2. catkin72 Says:

    As a Gloucestershire resident living in an area where the library is facing closure due to the lack of people able/willing to form a community group to take over the running of it – not surprising when you consider the demographics of the area where this suggestion has been made – I’d like to say what has angered me most is the fact that most people in the area do not know of the threat to the library. It was pushed further when the head of council stated that those people objecting the closure of the libraries ‘were not normal’. What many people fail to realise is that at a time of cuts to children’s centres, youth clubs and services for the elderly if kept in place the Library service does and could in part replace and support these lost services. The base of the problem lies in the fact that there is a great lack of understanding as to the role of a library within the community, and the potential that a community based service like the library can fulfil – that said it’s nothing new. JR will continue, the cuts facing the libraries in Gloucestershire are the latest in a series over the last few decades, sadly it will result in a reduction in Professional Librarians and experienced library staff, poor stock, few opportunities to interact with the community and eventually the complete closure as a service that is not used, I for one feel that the loss of the library may for many not be a big deal, but in the long run will be regretted especially with the loss of educational opportunity, and community organisations…

  3. UleyGirl Says:

    a good post on a tough debate. I’m torn on this debate…… I go to the library with my children now because it’s a good thing to do, it kills a few hours, it’s free and they like choosing books. But they don’t ‘need’ to go. They have plenty of books at home AND access to the internet. The library is full of people like me. Middle-class mums who think it’s a nice place to be. Is that right?
    One of the previous posts said that many people don’t realise their library is under threat. I’ve found the opposite – my mother-in-law (up in the north west) is in panic and signing petitions because she thinks the council is closing the main library in her city – the big county library! There’s no such proposal…..and despite some clear reporting in the press and local consultation, the wrong message still gets out. Councils need to consider all options and change is important. They won’t always get it right – that’s why public feedback and people getting involved is always so important.

  4. […] following the process they are breaking the law but bear with me). Even the ‘famous’ review in Gloucestershire County Council regarding their libraries was challenged on the basis that it broke equalities legislation and that […]

  5. […] is very similar to the situation in Gloucestershire where libraries were substantially cut because the council pledged to […]

  6. […] Thus, if the council wants to protect (as far as is possible) those core services with statutory implications the impact on other services is greater. Plus, if the cuts they need to make add up to 27% of the council budget then if you protect certain social care services the cuts you need to make are higher in other areas. As explained in another context, this is even worse when the services you legally have to provide make up the vast majority of the council budget. […]

  7. […] of the councils corporate centre and got ourselves involved (inadvertently) in a massive row with library campaigners in Gloucestershire. Our post reviewing the dispute and trying to get to the bottom of the real issue in GCC (as […]

  8. […] things have gone wrong.  Sometimes we’ve written things and found that not everyone always agrees with us, especially when it’s a tough situation, but that’s fine; as long as the discussions […]

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