Talk at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Today I spoke at Windows on the World: Keeping Them Open – The prospects for public service broadcasting, libraries and arts. Below is the script which I tried to stick to! I had 10-15 minutes to speak and an awful lot to cram in, so I followed the advice of the wise daveyp and aimed for about 20 points that got a minute or two each. Hopefully I was factually accurate and vaguely informative…

Public libraries across the UK are facing significant and disproportionate budget cuts, as councils seek to meet national government demands to cut on average 25% from their public spending. Between 400 and 600 libraries face closure within the next two years, and many other libraries are facing a reduction in staff, opening hours, outreach activities and materials. It has been well-publicised that libraries are seen as a ‘soft target’, due in part to a perceived nature of libraries as ‘non-essential’ services, and in part due to a perceived decline in relevance and use.

It is important to point out that public libraries are in fact a statutory service; under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, local authorities have a duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service, to pay due attention to the needs of everyone in the community whether or not they are an active library user, to ensure that the requirements of residents and those studying and working in the area are met, and to promote the service. Councils also have a legal duty under the Equalities Act to ensure that the service is accessible to all.

Since their inception, libraries have been an egalitarian source of education and cultural resources, reducing social inequality as an inherent aspect of their force for social good. Social inequality is likely to increase as economic issues such as unemployment and rising food prices continue to be an issue. Changes to the social justice system such as legal aid cuts will have an impact, as too will the new university tuition fees structure and the introduction of ‘free schools’. The gap between the haves and the have nots will widen.

Libraries therefore continue to be relevant, continuing to enhance people’s life chances. Recent research has shown that a large proportion of children use a public library regularly, and that children who use a library are twice as likely to have an above average reading age. Almost a third of the population do not have access to the internet at home, and many of those who do are not proficient users of the internet and computers. Libraries offer access to the internet for free or at a low price, and also offer training and support for those who need it. This is crucial to tackling the digital divide, that, if left to grow, would further marginalise groups such as the elderly, people with learning disabilities, and those living in poverty. Access to computers enables job-seekers to write resumes using word processing software and apply for jobs online, which is increasingly becoming the only accepted method.

As people’s disposable income decreases, libraries are once again becoming the only source of free and affordable books, as well as offering access to sheet and recorded music, films, games and other forms of cultural resources and entertainment. Not only do libraries encourage children and young people to engage with reading and learning, but they also encourage adults who have previously not found success through other forms of education.

Recent years have seen a decline in physical library visits, but a substantial increase in the use of online library resources accessed from the home. A reduction in physical visits can be attributed to positive and negative factors – for example, positive reasons such as half the need to visit a library now that you can order books online rather than needing to visit the physical library, and need only go in to collect them; and negative reasons, such as the fact that many libraries have been forced to cut their opening hours over the last decade due budget cuts prior to the current economic crisis. Recent increases in library usage may be attributed to the high profile that they have had in national and local media as a result of campaigning and advocacy work, raising people’s awareness of the value of libraries and what is on offer. Councils have often failed to promote their library service adequately which has meant that these resources have previously existed unnoticed by local residents.

Since April 2010, local councils have been announcing their plans for budget cuts. The vast majority have focussed their cuts on what they perceive to be easier cuts which will have less impact on their residents. They have grossly underestimated not only the impact that cuts and closures will have to their citizens, but also the ferocity of opposition with which they would be met. Local communities have rallied together to hold read-ins, sign petitions and contribute to consultations which, for the large part, appear to have been disregarded as councils are forced to plough on with cuts as they see no alternative.

Where councils have sought alternative solutions to closures, they have looked at methods such as outsourcing to private companies, ‘divesting’ to community groups, setting up Trusts and community interest companies. All of these methods come with their own issues.

Technical issues are causing problems for community groups who are trying to take over libraries; access to council computer systems is often prohibited due to data protection, which limits volunteers’ ability to access systems needed to run libraries effectively.

Other problems include threats to the equity, accessibility and openness of local libraries. Where a community group runs a library that is not counted by the council as part of its statutory service, the group has the right to charge a membership fee. They can also select which stock to purchase and what will or will not be held within the library. Although groups would not be able to directly discriminate against other groups, indirect discrimination could take the form of refusing to stock materials such as foreign language newspapers, or ceasing to support users who may require access to large print or audio-books.

In order to demonstrate that they are being successful, the groups running libraries, be they a private company or a group of volunteers, will need to prove that a certain number of people are using the library. In order to do this they may cease stocking less ‘popular’ resources and focus their limited budget on ‘best-sellers’. While this may have its benefits in meeting the immediate desires of a certain group of users, it goes against the grain of what many, including my fellow speaker Bob Usherwood, believe to be the role of the public library. I hope he’ll forgive me paraphrasing his assertion that to stock solely ‘popular’ material could be seen as patronising to citizens, who, in a public library, ought to be able to access high quality resources to improve aspirations and life chances. I believe a balance must be struck between the two in order to meet the needs of the whole community, who must be involved, with the support of expert and knowledgeable staff, in the development of a successful library service.

Since summer last year, local groups have been campaigning against library cuts and closures. The national public libraries advocacy group Voices for the Library, of which I am a founder, has been working to draw attention to not only the threat against libraries but also the social value and relevance of the free, professionally-staffed, publicly accountable library network in the UK. Attention has been drawn to the likely impact of library cuts on areas such as literacy, employment, individual and collective well-being, and local economies.

A number of legal challenges are under way, with local residents seeking to stop councils’ plans. A judicial review of Brent’s proposals will take place on 19th and 20th July. Both Brent and Gloucestershire have been issued with injunctions to prevent them from implementing their proposed cuts. A judicial review of Gloucestershire County Council will take place in September. These cases are historic; never before have injunctions been put in place to halt a council’s proposals to cut library services, nor have judicial reviews taken place to set a precedent for a clear definition of the terms ‘comprehensive’ and ‘efficient’. The significance of these cases cannot be underestimated; the outcomes will define the future levels of library service provision around the UK, as it becomes clearer just how little councils can get away with investing in their libraries. This cynical approach to the provision of a statutory service is far from ideal, but unfortunately is not being challenged by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the government department with responsibility for libraries.

Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act, the Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Hunt, has a duty to superintend councils’ provision of library services. Where it appears that a council may be in breach of the Act, he has a duty to intervene. Despite unprecedented cuts to libraries, however, he has refused to do so. Similarly, Ed Vaizey, the libraries Minister and self-described ‘champion’ of libraries, has had very little involvement in matters relating to libraries since his appointment. Both Vaizey and Hunt continue to argue that libraries are a local matter to be dealt with by local councils. Even where legal challenges have been launched, they have refused to intervene.

There are a number of possible outcomes of the judicial reviews. The High Court could render the decision completely invalid, which would send the case back to the original decision-maker, directing them to remake the decision in light of the court’s findings. In rare cases the court might make the decision itself. The Court could also compel the public authority to fulfil their duties (mandatory order). Any of these outcomes would increase the pressure on the Secretary of State to intervene at a local level, which would then have an impact on the decisions being made around the country. There is a possibility that this would compel the government to update the Public Libraries and Museums Act in order to avoid the cyclical process of legal challenge and intervention, and instead put in place clearer guidelines within the Act to prevent councils from implementing cuts they believe to be lawful which the High Court does not.

It is important to continue putting pressure on local councils to discourage them from implementing damaging cuts, even while the judicial review process in other areas is under way. This can be done through the local democratic process in the form of petitions against library cuts and closures; speaking and asking questions at council meetings; making Freedom of Information requests regarding expenditure on libraries and other areas; and encouraging the decision to be called in to Overview and Scrutiny, for example. Libraries have a natural role to play in encouraging individuals to get involved in local and national democratic processes; public meetings held at libraries to discuss the future of library and information services can be of great benefit. It is important to distinguish between engaging in local democracy which compels councils to meet their duties, and taking over the council’s responsibilities within a Big Society framework.

It can be of benefit to contact local Members of Parliament, who, although they have little say in the running of local authorities, can urge councillors to reconsider their actions or challenge the decisions made by opposition parties. The involvement of MPs also brings media attention.

A number of local campaign groups have found it beneficial to contact the media with news of councils’ planned cuts and coherent arguments as to why these are counterproductive. The Save Doncaster Libraries campaign, for example, makes extensive use of social media outlets such as twitter and a blog to post updates which alert local residents to developments as well as being a source of information for local and national media. Raising the profile of the situation in this way shines a spotlight on the council and places them under greater scrutiny, as well as ensures that the issue is part of the national picture in terms of libraries but also the wider threat to public services and civic life.

Some councils have been swayed by the arguments for the value of library services to their wider strategic priorities, such as improving standards of health, education and community cohesion, and the pressure placed on them through media attention and the involvement of MPs. A number of councils have sought to make savings elsewhere instead, and some have deferred implementing any cuts and closures until after the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Localism Bill has been passed. We must continue to let councils know that they will be challenged on the form of cuts they seek to implement, but it is also necessary to challenge the ideology which values the cutting of public spending as an end in itself.


3 thoughts on “Talk at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

  1. Excellent work, my lovely. Wish I could have been there to support you but thanks for posting it here so that I could still have a read.

  2. Brilliant speech. I’m hugely impressed by how many different issues you address, how clearly you address them, and the logical flow from one idea to the next. I hope it got a good reception.

    1. Thanks Katie 🙂 It was an ‘intimate’ gathering, but the input in the discussion afterwards was great and even though we were concerned it’d be a case of preaching to the converted, from what people said afterwards I think I addressed some things that people hadn’t previously considered, which is always great to know.

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