As regular readers of this blog will know we have got ourselves into a fair bit of trouble when discussing libraries. So, before I continue please let me state that I actually like and value libraries. I think that local government should continue to provide them and I fully recognise that they are a valuable community resource.
However, when discussing libraries I have always said that they should be considered in context alongside the other council services that are also affected. I was therefore fascinated to come across a short article on the Guardian Social Care network where the Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Kevin Mitchell, discussed the public reaction to the cuts being made in his county.
After explaining the parlous state of his budget (he needs to find £119m out of £500m; roughly 24%) he goes on to explain the public reaction to his proposals:
We have taken the decision to ring fence two areas of spending: social care for vulnerable children and our fire and rescue service. We took the view that other service areas should take a proportionate share of the cuts.
When we presented our plans for implementing this decision, our electorate could see that we were proposing over four years to cut social care spending by £31m, highways spending by £13m, waste management by £4m and library services by £2m.
Given the scale of the planned cuts, you might expect a caring population to express anger about cuts to care for older people, about the impact of cuts on the highway network and congestion and about the impact of cuts on recycling. None of these concerns materialised to any significant extent.
The single area of huge campaigning activity was our library service. Residents rose up in our city, towns and villages to demand that we keep all of our 43 libraries open.
This is very similar to the situation in Gloucestershire where libraries were substantially cut because the council pledged to protect
- Care of older people
- Care for vulnerable adults
- Child protection and care for vulnerable children
- Fire & Rescue
- Supporting thousands of voluntary carers
They therefore ended up making proportionately higher cuts to their library services.
Taken together these examples, and many more from places we actually work, lead us to ask some difficult questions. The biggest of these relates to how local democracy can adequately protect the most vulnerable in society when because of their small numbers they are unable to shout the loudest?