Letter from Barbara Follett MP (DCMS) to Anne Snelgrove MP :Â
dated 2nd July and copied to Shirley Burnham, Save Old Town Library Campaign
culture, media and sport
Our ref: Â Â CMS 116880/DC
Your ref: SJB/BURN01009/0191105
Ms Anne Snelgrove MP
House of Commons
SW1A 0AA Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2 July 2009
Thank you for your letter of April 28th 2009 addressed to the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP, outlining the concerns of your constituent, Ms Shirley Burnham of about the proposed closure of libraries in Swindon. Â Your letter has been transferred to me for response as this issue forms part of my Ministerial responsibilities.
As the Department said in its letter to Ms Burnham of April 21st 2009, the previous Secretary of State considered this case in light of his powers of investigation and intervention under the Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964 and, based on information reasonably available, he was not minded to intervene. Â The current Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP, will however, keep this matter under consideration and will watch closely for the outcomes of any decisions taken by Swindon Borough Council and any challenges to those decisions.
In discharging its duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service, a Council must assess what specific provision is desirable and balance this against what is deliverable within its own budgets. Â While closures reduce the number of actual libraries, this is not a useful indicator of a declining service: where the estate of a library service is not appropriately placed for the contemporary community, closures or relocations can release funds to invest in the improvement of the overall service.
Swindon Council has prepared a report identifying nine libraries that could be closed, but does not suggest that all of them should be closed. Â Of the four libraries that people want to save, one, at Walcot, is now being run by volunteers and is, therefore no longer under threat of closure. Â In this instance my officials have been told by the local authority that a community shop approached them about staffing the self service facility with volunteers. Â The shop agreed to deliver the library service in conjunction with the local authority. Â The shop is responsible for the volunteers, including their recruitment, and at present has recruited 11 people. Â The shop trustees are confident that they will be able to continue for a minimum of two years, but if people stop volunteering and the community shop could no longer continue, there is a break clause in their lease and the building would revert to the local authority. Â The local authority expects the project to run until the regeneration of Sussex Square, Walcot is completed, and if the shop and library are successful, the Council expect to provide a community facility within the design. Â We know that the possibility of libraries being staffed by volunteers can be a cause for concern, but community ownership is well established in Cambridgeshire and reports suggest it is also working well in Dorset.
Given that, under the 1964 Act Swindon Council has a responsibility to ensure that their library service is comprehensive and efficient. Â They can decide, like Tower Hamlets, to close community libraries and replace them with centralised or hub services. Â As you know, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council is hoping to replace 13 of its community libraries with hub libraries. Â As you will also know, the Secretary of State has intervened in this case and the subsequent inquiry, led by Sue Charteris, is now considering whether these proposed hub libraries will be able to provide the comprehensive and efficient service that the residents of the Wirral are entitled to receive. Â Although this inquiry is restricted to the Wirral and its conclusions cannot be presumed to apply to library services across England, it will, we believe, clarify the Government’s approach to library authorities’ compliance with statutory duties, and provide a guide for authorities in the interpretation of these.
As mentioned in the Department’s previous letter to Ms Burnham, public libraries remain high on the government’s agenda. Â The role of the DCMS is to provide the library sector with strategic vision and leadership and, at the Public Library Authority Conference in October last year, the Secretary of State launched the Library Service Modernisation Review which will outline Government’s vision for a modern, world-class public library service. Â The findings, setting out some of the necessary steps to support all local authorities in providing continuously improving, excellent library services will be published this Summer.
This letter has been copied to Ms Burnham, who has also written separately to the Secretary of State.
BARBARA FOLLETT MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary
Alan Gibbons comments:
“The tone of this letter is worrying. It would cost just Â£21,700 to secure Old Town library for a year. Let’s face it, Â£10,000 has already been spent on a consultancy, Â£8,000 out of the coffers of the MLA. For many months the local campaigners have explained why the specific needs of the local community mean that the presence of a nearby central library should not lead to Old Town’s closure. They have found it extremely hard to have their views taken seriously, in spite of a well supported petition and an energetic campaign.
“Barbara Follett seems to hint that ‘hub libraries’ could replace large sections of the branch network. Ominously, there is a mention of Wirral in this context. The principle has to be that the heart of the British library system is a family of branch libraries rooted in local communities, accessible and run by permanent staff. In some areas volunteers do a good job but the this should be a last resort, as should library links. Any retreat from the concept of the library service as ‘comprehensive and efficient’ runs counter to the spirit of the 1964 Act.
“Big cuts are on the way. It is vital that we defend Swindon and Wirral if we are to stand any chance of blunting the axe that will be swung in a year or so’s time.”