Posted tagged ‘libraries’

Politically protecting the vulnerable

October 12, 2011

Good point well made

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?

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Judicially reviewed

September 5, 2011

A more imposing location for decision making than a council chamber?

It sometimes feels like established society is collapsing around our ears.

First the bankers did their best to destroy the financial system (with a worthy assist from the general public it must be said); then the politicians decided to abuse their expenses and finally the press and police conspired together to take the award for the 2011 abuse of power of the year.

The one group who have survived relatively unscathed from this attack of societal self-destruction have been our judges.

Despite the judiciary being about as representative of the British population as a bulldog is of the canine race our judges occupy an almost rarefied position in society. As an example, no matter what the crisis the general response of the British public, press and politicians is to demand an independent judicial enquiry, or for a particularly egregious breach of trust an independent public enquiry chaired by a judge.

This love of the judiciary is possibly the last recourse of a society let down by our other elites, and also by a society that is less than trusting of our politicians.

As goes society so goes Local Government.

Over the past few months members of the public have been petitioning the courts in untold numbers to try and reverse decisions made by their local authorities. This has been the case about possible library closures and, home care services and significantly wider cuts to Adult Social Care amongst many others.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the causes of these campaigners.

However, I can’t help but think that changing these decisions through the courts rather than through the local democratic process is simply not right.

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Libraries, raised tempers and Gloucestershire County Council

August 22, 2011

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.

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Closing Libraries (and other heresies)

August 18, 2011

To close or not to close? That is the question...

It is amazing how quickly a local government working, library supporting, cuts defying, Eric Pickles baiting council officer can turn into an anti-libraries cuts enthusiast with just a few vaguely provocative tweets but that is exactly what happened to me on Tuesday.

Twitter is great for many things; it is helpful for spreading ideas, sharing articles and making pithy comments on the news of the day. It is good for making connections, starting debates and provides for the intellectual stimulation some other forms of social media do not.

However, twitter is not good for developing a full and detailed argument on any particular topic.

And so it proved on Tuesday.

@walkyouhome and @ShirleyBurnham are (and I think it is ok to assume this) library supporters and campaigners and neither were particularly impressed by my suggestion that the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act might be a pretty poor basis upon which to base today’s library policy.

Of course I did this in typical twitter slang “me thinks world a little different in 1964???”

And the debate started. It ranged across a number of topics but my side of it essentially boiled down to five things:

1)    A libraries service for 2011 probably looks very different to one in 1964

2)    A libraries service for Hackney should look different than one for Gloucestershire

3)    Innovation in the delivery of library services should be encouraged and this might mean different models

4)    Local councils are best placed to make these decisions

5)    Judicial reviews are a very bad way to decide local policy

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The cuts are coming; quick, hide the books!

January 21, 2011

How many people would it take to take all these books out?

It may have escaped the notice of some people but this blog is ‘pro’ local government.

However, that does not mean that we automatically get upset when local residents act to protest against what is going on in their local council. To be honest it is often reassuring to know that the people we are serving care enough to get upset about what we are doing.

Protest is not necessarily enough to get a mention in this blog though. What we really appreciate is when residents do something amusing in their protest.

Standing outside the council and chanting just doesn’t cut it, nor does chanting whilst holding an amusingly worded sign; even chanting with an amusing sign and a costume is not quite enough.

The people of Milton Keynes though know just how to do it. As the BBC detailed:

Library-users have emptied a town’s library of books in protest against plans to close it down.

People have taken their maximum allowance of books from Stony Stratford library, Milton Keynes – clearing all 16,000 volumes from its shelves.

That is one hell of a protest, and they managed to ”over’-use a council service without causing untold pain on us poor local government workers. A similar set of protests might be as follows:

  • A mass swim: People turn up at the local swimming baths at the same time; those who are not aloud to swim take their place in the ‘watching area’ and entertain themselves by cheering on the lane swimmers and doing Mexican waves.
  • Catch the bus: Where Local Authorities still provide the bus services residents could all go along and catch the bus instead of driving for a day or two.
  • Pop into the one stop shop: Take advantage of your local one stop shop; pop in and ask one of the advice officers something related to your council services.
  • Visit your council’s website: Just click through as many times as you can; if you need motivation keep clicking until you learn something new

However, and here is my moment to get serious, the problem with these protests (and similar efforts to save post offices through petitions etc) is that they all reflect people making a special effort to use a council service that they otherwise ignore. If all 16,000 books were out of the library all of the time would the council really be seeking to cut it?

Still, I do love a good protest!

And if anyone has any other protest ideas please do add them below…