Blackfen Library – Community Management: response by Bexley Council

At the Blackfen Community Association meeting on 18 February 2015 a number of questions were asked by those who attended. They were addressed to the councillors who were present. Some but not all of the questions were answered at the time.

On 25 March Bexley Council addressed these questions by publishing the following response on their website:

Blackfen library – community management proposals

The following is being published in response to questions raised about the community management of Blackfen Library.

Would a community library result in fewer books to borrow?

Not necessarily – there are many different options for a community library. It could involve the same number of books as is currently held in stock, or more or less – it depends on the proposals that are received from the community management organisations and the level of emphasis they place on stock holdings. It should also be noted that book borrowing levels are falling overall in libraries across the country, and established professional practice suggests that simply increasing or maintaining the number of books will not resolve this downturn. The number of people borrowing books and the number of book loans from libraries nationally has fallen by half since 1997 and therefore it follows that stock levels in libraries generally, are changing.

Would library membership have a fee?

Our existing community managed libraries offer different membership tiers, including a free membership that offers similar benefits to the Council service, as well as ‘paid’ memberships that provide enhanced benefits, such as freedom from library fines. We welcome creative proposals that demonstrate a business case that seeks to provide sustainability but we would not approve a proposal that made use of the library exclusively dependent on a ‘paid’ subscription.

How could volunteers run it if they aren’t professional librarians?

Professional Librarians work out of our shared back office and offer support to libraries in Bexley and Bromley. Our Librarians offer continued support to Bexley’s existing community libraries, where they require it, and would extend this to all community managed libraries going forward.

The staff that work in Council libraries on a day-to-day basis are trained in customer service and gain a great deal of experience through their work. They are also trained to handle the complexity of running the Council’s service as it is currently delivered. The model for our existing community managed libraries (that was proposed to the Council by Greener Bexley) is to ‘second’ staff from the front line Council service (our current branch libraries), to provide an appropriate level of support These seconded staff work with the volunteers, as they do in the Council’s libraries.

We would welcome proposals that suggest the use of seconded staff. Alternatively, we welcome other proposals, if potential community management organisations have other ideas as to how they would wish to manage staff.

It is also worth noting that the role of staff/volunteers in the library in terms of the skills needed will be very much dependent on the form that the management model takes and it does not need to be beyond the reach of volunteers in terms of complexity. We would also be happy to provide training as part of the setting up of the new arrangements.

Why was money being spent on new Council offices and Sidcup improvements but Blackfen gets nothing?

The provision of the new Civic Offices was funded by the sale of other Council properties and has resulted in a net saving to the taxpayer, as well as investment in community facilities and new homes. The improvements to Sidcup Library have been paid for through external funding that the Council secured for the purpose of regenerating the town centre.

Has Bexley Council protested to Central Government about the cuts to local government?

Councillors have raised the issue of the Council’s funding with Ministers.

Why was a petition of 3,017 signatures ignored?

The petition was reported on and heard at Public Cabinet. A debate (also broadcast on the internet) was held about the petition at the meeting and Members took the petition and overall response to the consultation into account when making the decision about the future of libraries in the context of the challenging financial position that the Council is facing and their responsibility to set a balanced budget.

Why has Sidcup Library just received money for refurbishment?

The refurbishment of Sidcup Library was fully funded by external development funds that were secured to improve community facilities in Sidcup.

Why was no account taken of the numbers who use Blackfen library compared to others?

The rationale for how the Council has defined its core Library Service was set out in the consultation proposals in Autumn 2014. This rationale is that the Council’s statutory duty to provide a library service has been defined through an assessment of need, including an assessment of the geographical coverage of the borough’s libraries. The 6 libraries that will remain in Council control will mean that over 98% of the population will be within 1.5 miles of a Council-run library. If Blackfen was included as a 7th core library, it would not extend coverage to any additional residents on this measure. If Blackfen Library was included as a core library instead of Welling, then 6,000 fewer residents would be within 1.5 miles of a Council library.
Usage figures on a branch by branch basis did not influence the approach outlined above, as the rationale was to provide maximum geographical coverage across the borough to the core service for residents. Focusing on usage levels would be more problematic as they vary over time.

Would a similar situation happen in Blackfen as happened in Slade Green where a community group’s application was refused?

The process to identify and appoint partners for the community management of libraries is a procurement process that allows the Council to dismiss bids that do not meet key criteria. In the case of multiple bids being received for the same library, we will assess and compare quality and financial factors to determine the successful bidder.

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?

This would very much depend on a range of factors – including the proposals made by the group for staffing arrangements. Groups that declare their interest in the first phase of the process (expressions of interest) and that are shortlisted will be sent these costs along with other supporting information. At this point in the process, shortlisted groups will also be provided with information about the level of finance that the Council can provide as annual revenue support to the groups. Council officers will work with them to develop a model that seeks to meet their aspirations and that addresses the financial challenges.

What should we do if we have volunteers but they do not have the necessary skills to put forward a business plan?

After groups have expressed an Interest, we would suggest that the particular areas where help is needed are flagged in order that we can offer help and support – as far as this is possible within the terms of the procurement process. It should be noted that the business planning stage of the process does not require extensive business planning skills, because the structured application documentation will guide groups through the process It might also be possible to signpost groups towards other sources of help outside the Council to help them with this process.

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