The new Blackfen Community Association held its second meeting on 18 February 2015 at the Jolly Fenman pub. Fifty residents and traders packed into the room, along with several Councillors. The focus of the meeting was the situation regarding Blackfen Library.
The councillors in attendance were Peter Craske (Cons, Lamorbey and Blackfen), Brian Beckwith (Cons, Lamorbey and Blackfen), Louie French (Cons, Welling and Falconwood), Lynn Smith (UKIP, Welling and Falconwood), Cafer Munur (Cons, East Wickham) and Mac McGannon (UKIP, Colyers – who explained that he used to live in Blackfen). All nine councillors from the three wards which represent residents of Blackfen were invited to attend and it is noticeable that those from Blendon and Penhill, in which ward the library is physically located, did not respond.
Karen Mensa-Bonsu explained the concern over the decision to remove Blackfen Library from the core borough service. She explained that the decision was made for ‘geographical’ reasons and did not take account of cost or the effect it would have on the community. She outlined the possible actions from this point: 1. judicial review. 2. that everyone present should contact their councillors and MP to express their concern directly. 3. as Cllrs Craske and Beckwith hold their surgeries at the library, could they offer any help? 4. any suggestions from anyone else?
Cllr Craske gave the reasons for Bexley Council’s decision: that government spending cuts were having an impact on local government and that £50m savings had to be made. Small unnoticeable cuts had already been made, such as merging library administration with Bromley Council, but now larger cuts were needed. He suggested that Blackfen Community Association should apply to manage the library.
Strong views were expressed by those present at the meeting, and questions were asked. Would a community library result in fewer books to borrow? Would library membership have a fee? How could volunteers run it if they aren’t professional librarians? Why was money being spent on new Council offices and Sidcup improvements but Blackfen gets nothing? Has Bexley Council protested to Central Government about the cuts to local government? Why was a petition of 3017 signatures ignored? Why has Sidcup Library just received money for refurbishment? Why was no account taken of the numbers who use Blackfen library compared to others? Would a similar situation happen in Blackfen as happened in Slade Green where a community group’s application was refused? What would be the cost of a community-run library sharing books and facilities with the Council service, and what would be the cost of lighting, heating, wages, etc? What should we do if we have volunteers but they do not have the necessary skills to put forward a business plan?*
Cllr Craske reiterated that the Blackfen Community Association should apply to manage the library: “Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in”. Cllr McGannon suggested prioritising what the community wants from its library and looking at overall costs to find the best non-political community package possible. The councillors promised that they would get hold of the running costs for Blackfen Library so that the Blackfen Community Association would be in a better position to be able to put together a successful application and understand what they are committing to.**
As a final item, those present voted to formalise the name ‘Blackfen Community Association’.
Many thanks to the Jolly Fenman for generously providing tea and coffee as well as the venue.
*On 25 March Bexley Council published responses to these questions which can be seen here.
**On 21 February Cllr Craske told us that he was not able to give the running costs for Blackfen Library after all, as Bexley Council had refused to share financial information while the procurement process was ongoing.
On 27 February Karen Mensa Bonsu and Joy Barnes met with James Brokenshire, MP to explain the dissatisfaction with the decision to remove Blackfen from the borough’s core library service. (Unfortunately I was unable to attend due to work commitments).
Since the meeting we have been trying to talk to as many people as possible about the various models for community libraries and we are considering our options.