Barbara Follet MP (DCMS) on Old Town Library

Letter from Barbara Follett MP (DCMS) to Anne Snelgrove MP : 
dated 2nd July and copied to Shirley Burnham, Save Old Town Library Campaign

department for
culture, media and sport

Our ref:   CMS 116880/DC
Your ref: SJB/BURN01009/0191105

Ms Anne Snelgrove MP
House of Commons
SW1A 0AA                                                                                                      2 July 2009

Dear Anne

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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  The shop agreed to deliver the library service in conjunction with the local authority.   The shop is responsible for the volunteers, including their recruitment, and at present has recruited 11 people.  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.  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.  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.  They can decide, like Tower Hamlets, to close community libraries and replace them with centralised or hub services.   As you know, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council is hoping to replace 13 of its community libraries with hub libraries.  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.  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.  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.  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.

Yours sincerely

Parliamentary Under Secretary

Alan Gibbons comments:

“The tone of this letter is worrying. It would cost just £21,700 to secure Old Town library for a year. Let’s face it, £10,000 has already been spent on a consultancy, £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.”

5 thoughts on “Barbara Follet MP (DCMS) on Old Town Library

  1. I believe that the Minister has been wrongly advised, particularly with regard to the points below:

    Walcot Library :
    When the closure of four branch libraries was announced earlier this year, Walcot Library was taken out of the picture As far as we know there was no consultation about this – the ultimatum was either to close it or have it run by volunteers. This arrangement is now in operation, relying on the dedication of a particular local Tory ward councillor without whom the project would founder. The library provides a much reduced service to the people of the area, as it has been combined with the local Charity Shop and opens only in the mornings. The Shop and its volunteers have moved into the Library premises and are merely custodians of the books – the actual answering of queries and administration is undertaken by nearby Parks Library and the Central Library. It is feared that if this experiment fails in the future, the Library will close without further consultation and residents will lose it and their community shop when the site is ‘redeveloped’.

    In a deprived area such as East Walcot with very few, if any, community facilities, a full library service is important. Borrowing figures may be low, but that should not justify defeatism. The area should get a full service and usage of the library actively encouraged. One thing that has disappeared under this new regime is the facility for children to use the computers for their homework, since the new library hours do not permit this. The Minister should note that representations from very concerned residents were recently made to the consultants, ERS.

    If the Minister is referring to Somersham Library in Cambridgeshire, we suggest that central and local government can take no credit for its considerable success. That success is wholly due to the dedication of the citizenry of Somersham who opposed the proposed closure of their branch library in November 2002. The library developed its current structure only once closure was confirmed. Friends of Somersham Library are fortunate to live in a village where there is enough expertise and experience amongst residents to allow for a strong library management team. We understand that, in its early days, a small group of volunteers was responsible for most tasks, but that duties have since been delegated to teams of volunteers responsible for fundraising, maintenance, bookbuying, book processing, manning the library for 23 hours per week, etc.

    Somersham, Cambridgeshire, is not typical; it is a special case. It is reckless to suggest that it can be a model for volunteering throughout the country. Walcot, for example, is not Somersham.

    The Minister also cites Dorset as a template for volunteering. The Minister should inquire how Dorset has arranged this. Volunteers from ‘friends’ groups in the rural villages of Puddletown and Burton Bradstock have taken over merely four hours per week on a voluntary, unpaid basis, with the support and encouragement of their county council — in both cases supplying fewer than half the hours that the two branches are open. They still have a professional librarian for more than half their library’s total opening hours. The Chair of Friends of Puddletown Library wrote to me in December, as follows :

    “What I can offer is a warning of the Orwellian doublespeak of your council. They have asked your organisation, it seems, to take over, as volunteer librarians, the whole 18 hours that your branch is open ‘on the Dorset model.’ Such an arduous undertaking is far removed from the reality of the Dorset model.”

    I suggest that the Minister has also been incorrectly advised with regard to Dorset: what is proposed for Swindon’s branch libraries bears absolutely no comparison with what is going on in Dorset.

    It is dismaying to note that DCMS has not done its homework very thoroughly.

  2. This is all rather like paying for a plumber to come to mend your leaking pipe and, after taking your money, he (she) tells you to do it yourself.

  3. Shirley’s rigorous response demonstrates clearly that, however brilliantly volunteers respond when given no other way of maintaining their library, volunteers can never be an alternative to a healthy network of
    Branch libraries.

  4. Was it my imagination, or was it the case some months ago in the Wirrall.., that the government just didn’t want to know… until someone initiated legal action. At which point, the government was essentially forced to take action, and announced the enquiry?

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