Libraries decision: full report

[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.

Save Blackfen Library: Council decision

The petition to Save Blackfen Library was presented at a Bexley Council Cabinet meeting on 17 December 2014. Karen Mensa-Bonsu argued the case for keeping Blackfen as a Council-run library and answered questions by councillors about 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. 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.

Despite the opposition, the Cabinet Members voted to pass the proposal to remove four libraries, including Blackfen, from the core service. This means that the Council will now seek partnerships with community organisations to run the library. This leaves plenty of questions about how these organisations will be found and whether the community will have any involvement in the process at all. And if none is found, it means closure.

Cllr Alex Sawyer, Cabinet Member for Community Safety and Leisure (with responsibilities for libraries) gave the quote of the night: “When I want to look something up I don’t look in a book, I look at Wikipedia”.

I find it disturbing that someone with such little regard for truth and accurate knowledge is taking important decisions about the lives of Bexley Borough residents.

[More assessment of the evening to come later, as I didn’t get home from the meeting till after 10pm and during the day I have to work for a living!]

The full report of the meeting is here.

Birth of ‘The Blackfen Association’

In my book I refer to the fact that Blackfen’s history is a story of a opportunity, determination and survival, of enterprising and strong-willed individuals. During the course of my research it became clear that loyalty and community spirit is still alive and kicking. Well, here is our chance to prove it.

On 20 November at 7pm a meeting was held at the Jolly Fenman pub in Blackfen Road. The intention was for an informal gathering to discuss ways to benefit the community, to see if a group of like-minded people can work together to bring back some sense of community spirit. The aim is to resurrect the concept of the Blackfen Forum with a view to forming a committee to organise events such as the Christmas lights and to discuss issues that affect residents living in Blackfen.

The meeting was attended by 23 residents and traders (including Premier Autocentres, Golf Zone, Tesco, Morgans hairdressers, GPS Lettings, Blackfen Trader). Councillors were invited but did not attend.

As well as discussion over the Christmas lights and the hard work which goes into collecting money for them each year, it was felt that Blackfen was the ‘poor end of the borough’ and did not benefit from attention or grants as other districts in the borough do. More could be done to improve the attractiveness of the high street and encourage people to shop there. There was also discussion about Bexley Council’s proposals for Blackfen Library.

The outcome was the emergence of the ‘Blackfen Association’ which aims to provide a single voice for issues relating to Blackfen, such as Christmas lights, the library, car parking and regeneration of the high street. A committee was formed: Debbie Jones – Temporary Chair, Karen Mensa-Bonsu – Vice Chair, Penny Duggan – Secretary, Joy Barnes – Treasurer.

The next meeting will be held in January.

With many thanks to Liz of the Jolly Fenman for providing the venue and tea/coffee (and beer, of course).

In the meantime, the Christmas lights have been switched on!

Christmas lights Dec. 2014

Blackfen Library ranks 4th busiest

The Bexley Council ‘Consultation on proposals to remodel the Bexley Library Service’ released in September 2014 details plans to retain 6 libraries in its ‘core service’ with remaining libraries being either taken over by community organisations or being closed. The 6 ‘core’ libraries are Central (Bexleyheath), Welling, Crayford, Thamesmead, Sidcup and Erith. One of the libraries to be cut from the core service is Blackfen. The document states:

“4 of the 6 libraries are currently the borough’s busiest, and it is anticipated that when the regeneration schemes in Thamesmead and Crayford are completed, these libraries will regain their previous usage levels, which would result in the 6 Council-retained libraries being the 6 busiest in the borough”.

The statement ‘4 of the 6 libraries are currently the borough’s busiest’ omits the fact that Blackfen is one of the missing two of the six (the other is North Heath). Indeed, Blackfen’s visitor numbers have been increasing: during the period 2010-13 Blackfen was ranked number five of eleven libraries in terms of visitor numbers and in the period 2013-14 it went up to number four of eleven. In that whole time it was well ahead of Thamesmead (which has gone from 6th, to 7th, to 8th) and Crayford (8th, and rising to 7th in 2013-14).

[Crayford’s new library opened in November 2012, and Thamesmead moved to a temporary building in November 2013].

So even if Thamesmead and Crayford ‘regain their previous usage levels’ they would still be well and truly behind Blackfen. The figures on library usage do not seem to back up the Council’s statement.

“Bexley Library Service – Engaging communities, enriching and improving lives” so they say. But at the expense of the extremely successful library at Blackfen?

Sign the petition to Save Blackfen Library.

Travelling from A to B in the real world

In its proposal to ‘remodel’ the borough’s libraries (ie remove four libraries, including Blackfen, from its ‘core services’), Bexley Council states “A significant majority of the borough’s population – 98.5%- will live within 1.5 miles of a library, meaning most residents will live within a short journey of one of the six proposed Council libraries.”

How did the Council arrive at this figure?

I presume they have chosen the shortest distance ‘as the crow flies’ but Blackfen has several obstacles surrounding it: the A2 dual carriageway, the Sidcup railway line and Danson Park. These mean that actual distances between A to B are much further. A few Blackfen addresses tested in the AA Route Planner reveals:

Address in Blackfen Distance to Sidcup Library (miles) Distance to Welling Library (miles)
Parish Gate Drive 3 1.9
Orchard Rise West 3.3 2
Fen Grove 2.4 1.7
Ramillies Road 2.1 2.1
Days Lane Primary School 2.4 1.4
Sherwood Park Primary School 2.9 2
Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Primary School 2.5 1.7
Blackfen School for Girls 2.9 2

 

These figures do not seem to fit with “98.5% will live within 1.5 miles of a library”.

Travelling from Parish Gate Drive to Welling Railway in the real world, according to AA Route Planner

Travelling from Parish Gate Drive to Welling Library in the real world, according to AA Route Planner

Even taking into account pedestrian bridges and subways, for most people, walking from Blackfen to either Welling or Sidcup would be considered too far, especially for the types of people most likely to use the library. And there is the hill of Hook Lane to consider, which is not for the faint-hearted! Bexley Council states that 76.3% of Bexley residents have a car – but have any of the councillors tried parking in Sidcup during the daytime lately? Oh, and they’re about to increase the car parking charges too…

Luckily Blackfen is well-served by a 51 bus route. However, this is no use to children on class visits who can currently walk to the nearest library. The time factor means children won’t be able to pop into a library after school. Job seekers using the library computers might not be able to afford the bus fares required to access another library. And by forcing people to visit other town centres, they are less likely to use the shops in Blackfen which could have a detrimental effect on its high street and, in turn, make it a less desirable place to live, which is surely not in the Council’s best interests economically. Local facilities are a key factor in a community’s survival.

Sign the petition to Save Blackfen Library!

Divided into three: ward boundaries

Blackfen is divided into three wards, cutting through the centre of the main shopping area: Blackfen and Lamorbey to the south, Penhill and Blendon to the east, and Falconwood and Welling to the north. It must surely be the most (politically) divided district in the Bexley Borough. This can make it difficult to address issues which affect Blackfen collectively. The Blackfen Forum was set up in 2004 to overcome this but it ceased to exist in 2010.

Blackfen Library is situated on Blackfen Parade in Blackfen Road, which is in the Penhill and Blendon ward. There are three Conservative Councillors for this ward: Graham D’Amiral, Steven Hall and Nick O’Hare.

Next door in the Blackfen and Lamorbey ward are Conservative Councillors Brian Beckwith and Peter Craske and UKIP Councillor Lynn Smith. There are three Conservative Councillors for Falconwood and Welling: Nigel Betts, Val Clark and Louie French.

That’s quite a lot of councillors for Blackfen to have overall. But will any of them support Blackfen’s library and help to secure its future for the people of Blackfen?

Blackfen and Lamorbey ward map. In fact the map, taken from Bexley Council's website in 2014, is an old one as it still shows the old library building in Cedar Avenue which closed in 2005.

Blackfen and Lamorbey ward map. In fact the map, taken from Bexley Council’s website in 2014, is an old one as it still shows the old library building in Cedar Avenue which closed in 2005.

Blendon and Penhill ward map

Blendon and Penhill ward map

Falconwood and Welling ward map

Falconwood and Welling ward map

 

 

 

Save Blackfen Library

Following Bexley Council’s proposal to re-model the borough’s libraries, the importance to many people to keep Blackfen Library as a Council-run library has become evident, not just to individuals but also to schools and businesses in the area. It is vital that we all make this clear to Bexley Council now. To do this please sign the petition and if you are a Bexley resident you should complete the Council questionnaire as well.

The petition to save Blackfen’s library can be signed here: http://www.change.org/p/bexley-council-save-blackfen-library-and-keep-it-as-a-council-managed-service. [THIS PETITION IS NOW CLOSED. THE ONLINE AND PAPER PETITION REACHED 3017 SIGNATURES].

Karen Mensa-Bonsu has been working incredibly hard to increase awareness of the proposal, to collect signatures and to distribute paper versions of the petition, and it is available to sign at the following places in Blackfen:
Candy Box Supermarket
Blackfen Cards
The Post Office/Londis
Tesco Express
Brownes Chemist
The Blackfen Specialist Off Licence
Morgans Hairdressers
Casey and Korkies Schoolwear
J. Ayre Bakers
The Card Shop Newsagents
Premier Autocentres
Hair Therapy
Day Lewis Pharmacy
The George Staples pub
Copelands Newsagent
Stuart Gothelf Opticians
Pares Children’s Footwear
Our Lady of the Rosary RC Church

Please tell as many people as you can about this. The petition will be presented to the Council by the end of the consultation period on 21 November.

Bexley residents should also complete the Council questionnaire at http://www.bexley.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=18087 [THIS QUESTIONNAIRE CLOSED ON 21 NOVEMBER]

Please support your local library and save it from being lost for future generations.

Blackfen Library today is a friendly, busy library in the heart of the shopping area. There are books, DVDs, audio books, PCs, WiFi, Council services, photocopier and fax, Council contact point with freephone, disabled access, public toilet (the only one in Blackfen), art display board for hire and meeting room for hire. Children’s groups include Toddlertimes, Storytimes and Chatterbooks. Regular adult events include a monthly reading group, twice-weekly coffee morning, weekly Scrabble and games club, twice-monthly Stitch and Craft, and two separate weekly Jigsaw puzzle groups. These are invaluable for both young and old, to educate and socialise, and to prevent isolation and loneliness [therefore making financial savings eventually as people are less likely to rely on social services and NHS]. Travelling further afield would be impractical or even impossible for many users due to physical mobility problems, time or cost of travel. Should Blackfen Library close, classes from local schools would be unable to make visits to the library, and children would not be able to pop into the library on their way home from school.

While children and older people are probably the main groups affected, there are also job-seekers who use the computers (not every household can afford a computer and broadband, and online job applications cannot be done via a mobile phone). With the number of financial cuts and public consultations put out by Bexley Council lately, to get rid of the library would seem to strike down democracy itself: for those who cannot travel far, how will they access online or paper versions of the consultation papers?

Children's corner, books and computers at Blackfen Library, March 2014. (Please note that I was not allowed to include people in the photograph, which is why it doesn't look busy. I actually had to wait quite a while before it cleared so I could take it!).

Children’s corner, books and computers at Blackfen Library, March 2014. (Please note that I was not allowed to include people in the photograph, which is why it doesn’t look busy. I actually had to wait quite a while before it cleared so I could take it!).

A snapshot while I was in Blackfen Library on the afternoon of Saturday 25th October: “It’s very busy. Quite a queue at the desk – people borrowing books and booking places for half-term activities for children. Someone is at a table studying, there are people using the computers, and there are excited children reading books in the kids corner. There is a Japanese calligraphy exhibition and artwork by Marlborough Park School on display. And Bexley Council want to get rid of all this? Meanwhile, I spotted only one A4 poster inviting people to comment on Bexley Library proposals – and nowhere did it say ‘and this means this particular library in Blackfen may close as a result’. Almost like they don’t want anyone to find out… Which would be convenient, wouldn’t it?”

As the petition was signed by such a large number of people it will be presented at the Bexley Council Public Cabinet Meeting on 17 December 2014 at 7.30pm. The public can attend this meeting, at the Civic Offices, Watling Street, Bexleyheath, so please come along and show your support.

Bexley Council’s ‘proposal’ for Blackfen Library

From Monday 29 September 2014, local people will have the opportunity to comment on Bexley’s new draft Library Strategy and its proposals to remodel the borough’s library service.

To save £800,000 the Council is proposing to deliver a ‘core’ library service from the following six libraries, which would operate for longer hours and provide extra services: Central Library Bexleyheath, Crayford, Erith, Sidcup, Thamesmead, Welling.

The Council plans to seek partnerships with community organisations to manage the following four libraries: Blackfen, Bostall, Northumberland Heath, Upper Belvedere.

Community libraries already exist in the borough at Bexley village and (from October) at Slade Green. The Council’s Home Library Service, which delivers books directly to the housebound, is not affected by the proposals.

The consultation will close on 21 November and the responses will be considered by the Council’s Cabinet in December. If approved, changes to libraries are likely to take effect in Spring 2016.

More details of the strategy and options can be seen here.

Please make sure you have your say. You can access the questionnaire here. Blackfen Library is an important local resource for local people. Take a look here to see what Blackfen Library provides for the community. Libraries aren’t just about books. There are events for adults and children, a meeting room for hire, DVDs and CDs, WiFi and PCs, photocopier, oh, and public toilets. (You may remember the previous hoo ha about Blackfen’s public toilets!)