diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Local London news doesn't get much of a look-in these days. Journalists are expensive, local papers are threadbare rags and most residents are more pre-occupied with national stories and celebrity gossip anyway. In an attempt to turn the tide I'm going to write about a London council news story but with the name of the borough deleted, in the hope that you'll read on just in case the story is about where you live. It very probably isn't, and you'll breathe a sigh of relief when I reveal all at the end, but what if you're one of the unlucky ones?

               council launches library cuts consultation

Yesterday                council launched a consultation inviting people who live, work or study in the borough to give their views on which aspects of the Library Service should be trimmed to save money. The government continues to cut local government funding so tough decisions have to be made as costs inexorably rise. Like other councils                has a legal duty to provide "a comprehensive and efficient library service", but precisely what this means isn't well defined so further trimming is always possible. Given that                has the 3rd highest library provision in London, legally there's plenty of scope to be more average.

The consultation proposes a number of different options, each of which could be implemented singly or in combination with others to save even more money. Potential annual savings are shown in brackets. The proposed implementation date is "late spring/early summer 2021".
Option 1: Reduce opening hours at all council managed libraries
a) Close each library for one day (or two half-days) per week (£150,000)
b) End the late evening opening hours currently offered once a week (£35,000)
c) End Sunday morning opening at the Central Library (£15,000)
              's libraries currently open six days a week, which is good going for 2020, so maybe knocking one day off wouldn't matter. It would also be a different day of the week for each library, easing the overall inconvenience for the wider community. However in one case that day would be Saturday, and if                are also killing off evenings and the sole Sunday opening then that's not good news for anyone who works 9-5.
Option 2: Operate libraries for half of the day on a selfserve basis (£150,000)
This'll be technology taking away people's jobs again. It's also coronavirus's fault for proving that               's libraries can function without the need for staff to handle books. Don't worry, says the consultation, "there would be an appropriate security presence to ensure visitors feel safe", but lower-paid security staff are unlikely to be able to provide recommendations or track down that elusive Wilkie Collins.
Option 3: Reduce the number of events and activities delivered by library staff (£0)
This isn't a separate option, it's a necessary result of any cuts made as part of options 1 and 2 because fewer staff means fewer activities. The consultation questionnaire includes the telling question "Would you be interested in volunteering in libraries to assist with the delivery of events and activities?" with the obvious follow-on that "if volunteer uptake is not sufficient... some events and activities may be discontinued." Storytime, Knitting Club and Living Well with Dementia are not sacrosanct.
Option 4: Introduce appointment system at the Local Studies and Archives Centre (£30,000-40,000)
Having specialist staff sitting around on spec isn't cost effective, so pre-booking would remove the need for a permanent presence at the enquiry desk, and that's another salary or two trimmed.
Option 5: Reduce or end council funding for Community Managed Libraries (up to £200,000)
               has several community libraries, spun off in 2016 to save cash while continuing to offer provision in smaller communities. Current funding arrangements end on 31st March 2021, so the perfect opportunity to slash funds is on its way. The consultation notes that "if financial support was withdrawn there may still be an option for these libraries to raise funds from other sources", and if they couldn't then "the council would seek to find an alternative community provider who was able to operate with less, or no, financial support" but in the real world this kind of approach would almost certainly "ultimately result in closure".
Option 6: Do nothing
Every council consultation in a time of austerity includes this option, then goes on to explain why it isn't really an option. The positive spin in this case is that the cuts are an opportunity "to build on new digital opportunities and support changing patterns of usage", but the reality is that                "faces unprecedented financial challenges from the increasing pressure to protect, and meet rising demand for, essential services such as adults and children’s social care." Capped budgets have to be balanced somehow, and care will always trump libraries.
Option 7: Other ideas
In case               's brainstorming has been insufficiently wide-ranging, the consultation states that "we would welcome suggestions for any other ideas on how the council can either reduce the cost of the Library Service or generate additional income from its library assets to offset costs." This'll encourage some to propose fruitloop savings based on personal prejudice, and others to scream that the council absolutely must not cut precious libraries under any circumstances despite this now being untenable. Don't expect any of these additional suggestions to be taken up.

It's a sad world in which                has to ask residents how best to cut library services, in this case to save perhaps £600,000 a year, which is the price of a couple of nice flats in the area, because central government remains intent on throttling local government spending. Austerity's been squeezing councils for ten years now, and under the current government in the current challenging economic circumstances has a lot further to go.

It's not just Bexley, and it's not just libraries, where these kinds of difficult decisions are having to be made. But there is a limit to how far councils can salami slice local services until they fall apart, and this particular local news story probably resonates wherever you happen to live.

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