[Extended version of item posted 18 December 2014]
The petition to Save Blackfen Library, signed by 3017 people, was presented at a Bexley Council Cabinet meeting on 17 December 2014. Karen Mensa-Bonsu was given five minutes to argue the case for keeping Blackfen as a Council-run library and explain why we do not want it to be ‘downgraded’ and removed from the Council’s core service. Figures show that Blackfen is the fourth busiest in the borough, contradicting the consultation document, and it is the second least expensive to run (after Erith) in terms of cost per visit. It is highly accessible, being on several bus routes, and free parking is available nearby. Blackfen Library is a vital resource to the community and its position in the high street increases incidental trade in the shops. It is used by many groups for both adults and children, and local school groups are able to walk there to learn about the use of professional library services. As a large and busy library, it might not be suitable for community management, and Council services (blue badges, parking permits, Council tax payments, etc) would be lost. If the library is closed – a real risk if no community organisation is found to run it – a vital community resource would be lost.
Karen then faced questions by Cabinet Members and Councillors for fifteen minutes.
Cllr Alex Sawyer, Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Leisure (with responsibility for libraries) asked the first question. Pointing out that libraries were at the heart of the community, he asked if Karen acknowledged that a community group could manage a library better than the Council. To this Karen responded that Blackfen was too large and too busy and did not deserve to be downgraded and lose the ability to offer the best services. In contrast, the number of library users at Welling (a library selected to be retained in the core service) had fallen significantly.
Cllr Sawyer asserted that the success of Blackfen Library could be built upon and would be better suited to community management, as shown at Bexley village Library, but Karen replied that it would be a second class option for it to be managed by a community organisation.
Cllr Don Massey, Cabinet Member for the Environment and Public Realm (and formerly Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Leisure) asked if Karen had visited Bexley and Slade Green Community Libraries and community libraries in other boroughs and how much research she had done into the various community library models. Karen explained that she had tried to talk to a librarian at Bexley but the conversation was interrupted by customers and that the head of Greener Bexley (the organisation which manages Bexley library) had not responded to e-mails for whatever reason.
In a strange twist, Cllr Massey then produced the latest Bexley Civic Society newsletter and claimed that it supported the Council’s often repeated statement that they are not proposing closure but community management. No offence to Bexley Civic Society (I am, incidentally, a member as well as the Area Representative for Lamorbey and Blackfen) but they are not an authority on library management. For the record, the paragraph in the newsletter said: “Members may wish to know about the Council’s plans to close its libraries in Blackfen, Bostall Heath, Northumberland Heath and Upper Belvedere. There may still be time to make your feelings known. As a last resort it may be worth remembering that Bexley Library was closed some time ago but is now open as a community amenity”. I personally can’t see how Massey saw that this was intended to support the Council’s proposal. Karen responded that the consultation document states that the library will close if no community group is found. Cllr Massey pursued the point with “but do you agree with Bexley Civic Society’s statement?” This was greeted by jeers from the public seats.
Peter Craske, Councillor for Blackfen and Lamorbey, who had sponsored the petition, explained that he had talked to people in his ward and during his surgeries which are held at Blackfen Library along with Cllr Brian Beckwith. He said that the library was regarded as a community resource and helped to keep the surrounding shops in business during the recession. He asked Karen: “what makes Blackfen Library such a big resource to the community?” She responded by listing the large number of groups which meet there (children’s groups, Scrabble, jigsaw, Stitch and Craft, reading, coffee mornings, etc) and emphasising the friendliness of staff.
Cllr Joe Ferreira, Shadow Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Leisure asked if anyone had been in favour of the proposal. Karen answered with an emphatic ‘No!’
Toni Ainge, Bexley Council’s Deputy Director of Leisure, Arts and Tourism (whose annual salary, by the way, is £82,602), went on to detail the responses to the council survey on the library re-modelling proposal [unfortunately I found it difficult to hear the figures given for number of responses] but she stated that opposition to the proposal was the most common response.
Cllr Teresa O’Neill, Leader of the Council, praised Slade Green Community Library and said that it was close to Blackfen in terms of size. She asked Ms Ainge about the concerns over level of service. Ms Ainge replied that the community group had chosen not to retain council services due to cash-handling worries and that there was ongoing professionalism with no reliance on volunteers. She said that “no one size fits all”.
Cllr Gareth Bacon, Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Finance and Corporate Services stated the current financial hardship and need by the Council to reduce spending. He said that it would be unfair to choose Blackfen above other libraries (eg Welling) for geographical reasons, that the range of activities could still take place under community management and that Bexley and Slade Green had been “liberated” from Council control.
Cllr Don Massey stated that he had visited all the libraries in the borough and that Bexley Library had been much improved under community management, with more activities taking place. He said that despite the fear of change, community management is the right way forward. He said that Welling was better placed for a library than Blackfen as it has a railway station.
Cllr Linda Bailey, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Growth, asked Toni Ainge how many hours Bexley Library is open per week (answer: 25 hours compared to 16 hours under council management) and about book stock management (answer: there are costs involved if the Council book management system is to be used by any community group).
Cllr John Fuller, Cabinet Member for Education, talked about the success of community library management in the Borough of Lewisham, eg Blackheath, Grove Park and Sydenham.
Cllr Eileen Pallen, Cabinet Member for Adults’ Services asked if the Summer Reading Challenge could continue in a community library, to which Toni Ainge replied yes, support for the scheme would be given if required.
Cllr Philip Read, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services asserted that “nothing stays the same” and then referred to the days when horse and carts went through dusty lanes (or something like that). He said that community groups were an “exciting development” because they freed communities from council control.
Cllr Alex Sawyer summarised by commending the number of signatures on the petition to Save Blackfen Library but said the people who had signed should become active library members. He said it was a simple decision, that community management is the best option.
Cllr Melvin Seymour, Conservative Member for Northumberland Heath acknowledged that the Council should provide more information and nip in the bud ‘Chinese Whispers’ because some members of the community have the understanding that they would need to manage the libraries themselves which is not the case. He praised Toni Ainge’s commitment to delivering a good library service.
Cllr Joe Ferreira, Shadow Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Leisure asked a number of important questions: Had the survey given the opportunity to properly air views? Why did four times as many people sign the petition as responded to the survey? How well was it advertised? What was its cost? The current proposal has not been altered in response to the negative responses. With the population growth expected in the north of the borough due to Crossrail the geographical spread will change. The fact that if no community management groups are found the libraries will close was being glossed over; will there be other options, such as an extension of the time given to find management groups? Should the council’s motto ‘listening to you’ be dropped?
Cllr Teresa O’Neill gave the cheap shot: “could I remind you that there was an election this year?” (referring to the fact that the Conservatives were returned to power in Bexley in May 2014).
Cllr Seán Newman, Shadow Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Growth talked about Upper Belvedere Library (also proposed for community management) and emphasised that closure is a threat. He said that community management is privatisation by the back door and that Bexley Community Library’s membership is tiered and elitist.
Cllr Teresa O’Neill responded that the last library closed in the borough was Barnehurst under Labour rule.
Cllr Stef Borella (Lab) said that Slade Green was considered to be privatised by its local community, and that Conservatives had also closed libraries in the past (Lower Belvedere and Foots Cray in the 1980s). He asked how Slade Green could be considered a success after being open for only 8 weeks. Who is accountable in the community group which runs it?
Cllr Peter Craske (Cons) said that politics was irrelevant, that Blackfen Library has been a vital resource, and that the impression is that community libraries are run by volunteers and what happens if they don’t turn up?
Cllr Lynn Smith (UKIP Member for Blackfen and Lamorbey) simply asked why the reserves of £68m can’t be used. There was strangely no specific opinion voiced on Blackfen’s Library.
Cllr John Husband (Lab) talked about Bostall Library (up for community management) and how much pensioners rely on it. He asked how many librarians will be on the dole.
Cllr June Slaughter (Cons), seemingly prompted by someone in the public seats, asked why Bexley was different from some other councils in being unable to invest in its library service.
Ms Toni Ainge tried to answer some of the questions raised: Vulnerable people would still have access via the home library service. She had been talking to Brent Borough library service about their successes. She said the Bexley Community Library was “free at the point of access” and that communication between Bexley Council and seconded librarians at Bexley Community Library ensured accountability and professionalism. There was no problem attracting volunteers. A full procurement process is used to find suitable community management groups.
Regarding the low response rate to the council survey, Cllr Alex Sawyer listed where the survey had been advertised and said that people couldn’t be forced to engage in it. He referred to the question “what if no experienced community management group comes forward” but did not actually answer it. He claimed Bexley and Slade Green Community Libraries were a success. He then came up with the quote of the night: “When I want to look something up I don’t look in a book, I look at Wikipedia”. [I still can’t believe he actually said that out loud].
Despite the opposition indicated by the petition and by the responses to the council survey, the Cabinet Members voted to pass the proposal to remove four libraries, Blackfen, Bostall, Upper Belvedere and Northumberland Heath, from the core service. This means that the Council will now seek partnerships with community organisations to run those libraries.
It was quite clear that the decision had already been made whatever discussions would take place at this Cabinet Meeting. There was no acknowledgement that the consultation document had given false information about library user figures. It is no wonder that the public do not bother to take part in public consultations – they already feel that their opinions mean nothing – and they are even less likely to take part now. Why bother spending money and time on consultation processes just to tick a box if the responses will be completely ignored?
While I acknowledge that this is a time of great change for libraries on a national level, the Council could do far more to answer questions about how community management organisations will be found and whether the community will have any involvement in the process at all. And they should stop glossing over the fact that if none is found, it means closure. Is this “liberation” as several Cabinet Members suggested, or is it more like abandonment?
Jonathan Rooks, Chair of Greener Bexley, Bexley Community Library and Slade Green Community Library has responded to some of the points above (23/12/2014). He says he is happy to talk to any group/individual interested in running a community library and it is a shame that Karen couldn’t wait to talk to librarians about Bexley Community Library while they served customers. Greener Bexley is a charity and dependent upon support from library members. A ‘Friends of’ scheme is offered where additional borrowing options are available beyond the minimum level which matches Bexley Council’s (12 books for 3 weeks). Jonathan fails to see how this could be considered elitist. Regarding accountability, Greener Bexley has a Service Level Agreement with Bexley Council for each of the libraries and meets quarterly with the Council to review progress. As a charity it is also required to report to the Charity Commission.