The council are not, as they have announced, making use of the libraries’ stay of execution to re-examine different ways of maintaining any more than their originally chosen ten libraries.
After a consultation where the majority of respondents selected the ‘none of the above’ option, a scrutiny report that recommended a different approach, endorsed by the all-party senior scrutiny panel, and a vote in Council that overturned the Labour majority, there were clear instructions to investigate a public service mutualisation of our library service.
This was not looking to reduce the budgeted cuts, and would retain the same number of staff as the mayor’s solution, which was to retain only ten libraries. It was recommending that the libraries be taken out of council control with greater use of volunteers under a different not-for-profit management, which would hopefully attract business support. In this way, we could maximise resources and eke them out to retain more libraries within a fully serviced networked system.
In late October, a grant was awarded to Bristol City Council to carry out a study around the option of mutualising our library service, favoured by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This has been successfully carried out in a number of other authorities and combines all of the local resources (buildings, staff money and volunteers) under a management structure that the task and finish group set up in the scrutiny process recommended, so long as it was not-for-profit.
A press conference was called by the council in November 2017 responding to the triple hammer blow of the consultation, task and finish group report, and the council motion to proceed with the recommendations brought by myself, Anthony Negus. This revealed that council were to delay the library closures, cover any short-term shortfall in revenue savings from reserves and look at alternative delivery models.
So, you might expect – job done! But council officers are now proceeding with the consultants, locked in to using the awarded grant to work around what was agreed before the change of heart – which we are told cannot be altered. Sight of their brief has been denied, on the spurious grounds of commercial sensitivity.
It’s reasonable to ask how this misdirected study is being remedied and the answer given is that the executive member is carrying out a separate exercise to see how this might apply to the new situation. But it transpires that both exercises are going to be based on the ten libraries set to be retained prior to the failed consultation, though this may also now include the three libraries trialled last year for extended hours access. So the consultation advice and other recommendations are being ignored.
The advantages of mutualisation, recommended by the DCMS and practised by several other councils will not be considered. Instead of maximising all resources to minimise the loss of libraries, any resulting savings in management and other resources, including staff and more money, will come out of the budget for the original ten libraries (plus the extra three) now enshrined as the core offer.
It might be that the chosen few are to be brought more into the 21st century, in accordance with the 2015 consultation, which is welcome. But the two separate examinations are not directed at what the people and this council have requested. This administration has not listened, as it professed. Instead, this city will end up with the same outcome as originally announced and all the unfavoured libraries will be cast off with unsustainable minimal welcome packs for those few who local residents might bravely seek to take over and try to run with all the associated costs.
This is an affront to citizens and councillors who have worked within the democratic process to express their majority views and recommendations. The administration will, as in the debate at Full Council, keep shouting “Austerity!” when the recommendations were for mutualisation within their own pre-set envelope of cost savings and numbers of paid staff.
Citizens will have to bear this pain of this unexplained stubbornness, whether they are regulars of the much-used libraries or need the services of one of the underused local sources of information: also likely their last public building for miles around.
This helpful initiative to keep more fully-functional libraries open is being ignored. It would have served the needs of local communities, cost no more than the pre-set budget with the same number of paid staff, was recommended and resourced by the government ministry, and has a proven track record, having been put in place and run successfully by a number of local authorities, most bigger than Bristol. All of this, despite the wishes of the consulted public and the elected council.
This administration has an obligation to openly explain why it won’t respond to good advice for the benefit of its citizens and they should be held to account until they do.
Anthony Negus is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Cotham.