Campaign for the Book Newsletter
Vaizey: bland, evasive, anything but reassuring
Culture Minister Ed Vaizeyâ€™s speech to the Local Government Association conference was a masterpiece of Life of Brian optimism, the massaging of reality and evasion. He began in Macmillan style essentially telling delegates that they had never had it so good, in spite of the fact that this very same group of people had earlier warned that the public library service might no longer exist by the end of the decade if the social care time bomb were not resolved. He trumpeted the building of brand new libraries such as the one in Birmingham City Centre though he knew very well that campaigners and users had long identified branch libraries in local communities as the main cause of concern. This set the tone for the rest of the speech.
There follows a subtle piece of intellectual slippage. Library visits are not falling, he says. It depends where you look. Certainly, in areas such as Brent and Lewisham the figures are grim and Mr Vaizey refused to intervene. The save our libraries movement has actually told Mr Vaizey that library use has been surprisingly robust in spite of his less than adequate stewardship. Some refurbishment has indeed occurred, but nowhere near enough and community libraries continue to close or are in danger of being turned into volunteer institutions with a precarious future. He attacks us for over-egging the danger to the service, but the librariansâ€™ professional body CILIP estimated in 2011 that 600 libraries were under threat (inc. 20% of English libraries). The reason this nightmarish scenario has not occurred has been because local communities have mounted commendable resistance, reducing councilsâ€™ room to manoeuvre. This has included legal actions, pickets, protests, Read Ins and a lobby of Parliament. None of this agitation is reflected in this blandest of speeches.
Nor is there any room for complacency. The Public Libraries News website estimates that 121 libraries , double Mr Vaizeyâ€™s estimate of sixty, were lost in the financial year 2011/12. The figure is obtained from counting up all reports about public libraries in the media each day. It is equally galling when he points to the role of the Arts Council even though he knows its funding has been slashed. Â£6 million for Grants for the Arts is a tiny figure when measured against the cultural needs of such a large country.
His talk of using CIPFA to compare authorities needs to be examined forensically. It could be useful to promote good practice. It could equally be an exercise in divide and rule to pass responsibility for problems in the public library from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to local councils. Leadership has been absent for some years. Strategic planning has been as rare as an bank boss with honour. This part of the speech suggests that is not likely to change any time soon.
When it comes to the section of the speech devoted to volunteers dishonesty runs rife. Of course there have always been volunteers, 7,000 prior to the recent crisis. The question is whether they supplement trained librarians or whether they replace them. The save our libraries movement is firmly of the opinion that it should be the former option. A paid, full time librarian is essential. A library without a full time member of staff is a room. Mr Vaizey must know that in Surrey a court case has blocked this path. After all, the Surrey Tory leader was a keynote speaker at the conference. Mr Vaizey must also know that a Surrey cabinet member has admitted that no money would be saved by volunteer libraries being introduced, clear evidence that this is an ideologically driven policy, not one directed reluctantly by cost.
In summary, there is nothing new or progressive in this speech. Invisible man Vaizey continues to evade his responsibilities and the public library service is anything but safe in his hands. Around the country communities know what the picture is in their area. They will not be fooled by Mr Vaizeyâ€™s latest blandishments. Already, we are planning a conference to prepare for any new challenges. Watch this space.