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Roger Featherstone Lambasts Proposed Library Cuts

July 4th 2013

Lincolnshire County Council is planning to take a chainsaw to the county's library services. There is a public consultation about the proposed changes, which include axing many of the county's smaller libraries and mobile services, and putting 170 jobs at risk. This consultation runs until the 30th of September, and will include a number of public consultation events, including one at the Meridian Leisure Centre on 20th July at 10am. Outrageously, LCC are asking people to book in advance, which means it will be harder for people to turn up on the spur of the moment.

Roger Featherstone is an employee of the mobile library service as well as a Louth town councillor. I missed the speech he made on Tuesday 2nd July about the proposed cuts, but he kindly sent me the following transcript:

The kindest thing to be said about the letter from Jonathan Platt is that it only gives us the edited highlights. There is no indication of the devastation this reorganisation will cause. If these changes go through it will be nothing less than a disaster for the people of Lincolnshire.

Of course I am very glad to hear that Louth is to retain its library but most Parish Councils will have received a very different letter to this. One that tells them that from next year they will no longer receive any service from the Libraries. Because while 15 libraries are to remain open, 30 are set to close and 286 places will lose their mobile library stops. In addition 170 jobs will disappear.

The letter says that 82% of Lincolnshire's population are not active borrowers. That means 18% are, that is nearly 1 in 5 or 128,520 people. That is the population of a large town or even a small city. It is a significant number that does not deserve to be ignored. Closing two-thirds of the county's libraries because not everybody uses them is like saying not everybody uses the county's schools so lets close two-thirds of them. There are factors other than footfall to be considered in both cases.

Having made the effort to read the report these cuts are based on, it is blatantly obvious that it is a desktop exercise compiled from published statistics by some bureaucrat who has not spoken to library staff or visited a library. It makes no effort to fit the library service to people's needs, in fact quite the opposite, because it is perfectly clear that its sole purpose is to find ways of saving money no matter what the consequences.

It makes some very questionable assumptions.

First it assumes that there is a direct correlation between population size and library use. Now while this may seem logical, very often it is not the case. A case in point is the route our mobile did today. At one stop where there are only two houses, six people came on. At a later stop where there are over a hundred households only one person came on. At yet another stop only one person came on - but she took thirty books. People have a nasty habit of making a mockery of bureaucratic neatness.

Secondly it assumes that because you live within a 30 minute journey time by public transport of a library that is acceptable access. To those of us who have lived in or visited a large urban area, the public transport system in Lincolnshire is close to being non-existent by comparison. What use is a 30 minute journey time to someone who only gets one bus a week if they get one at all, and that possibly on a day when the library is not open. Any councillor who suggests that Dial-a-Ride is an acceptable alternative, I suspect has never used it.

The third questionable assumption is that volunteers are an adequate replacement for paid staff. This depends so much on the commitment of the volunteers, their level of expertise and their ability to sustain the effort if it is not to fold after the novelty has worn off. Then there is the question of how much access to our personal data will these volunteers have? Will they get CRB checks and who pays for those? What about public liability insurance? Who pays for the utilities? What would be the arrangements for community groups using the ex-library buildings? Who pays to maintain them?

What will happen to those libraries where volunteers cannot be found or where attempts to run them with volunteers fail? Those libraries will have gone and it will be very difficult to resurrect them.

There is something else. I have talked to some of the volunteers who help the libraries at Sutton-on-Sea and Alford, and while they are happy to support libraries to allow them to open extra hours they would not wish to be seen as replacing, for free, library staff who have lost their jobs.

The fourth questionable assumption is that mobile libraries, even "super-mobile libraries," are an adequate substitute for static libraries. Replacing a static library with a mobile library is like replacing an apple with a pear. They might seem similar but they are not the same thing. A mobile library is not a static library with wheels attached. It serves a totally different function - to reach the places that static libraries cannot reach. To treat them as movable static libraries is to misunderstand their function and to limit their potential.

In 2008 the Library Service reduced the hours of many of the static libraries and as a sop to protests from the public replaced them with a mobile library for a morning or an afternoon. It was an abject failure. I worked some of those routes and I remember how miserable they were, sitting for three hours in Alford followed by two hours in Wainfleet and serving only a handful of people and on at least one occasion nobody - all day.

Most static libraries have several public access computers available for free use. These are very popular and their use is rising. The proposal says these will be replaced by a mobile library with internet access. So, to take Alford as an example, it will go from 6 computers available 19 hours a week to one computer or possibly two available 8 hours a month. This at a time when demand is increasing and is set to increase further as the government expects benefits to be accessed via the internet.

Those who will be most adversely affected by these proposals are the most vulnerable in our society - the rural elderly, those without transport, those on low incomes, those disabled or unemployed needing to apply for benefits or search for jobs - in fact those we should be doing most to help. Only today Age UK has highlighted the plight of the rural elderly and the onset of loneliness, depression and even death due to isolation caused by the disappearance from villages of shops, post offices, schools, pubs and other social hubs. These proposals will only add to the isolation felt by many of Lincolnshire's small communities.

Now some will say that it is all right protesting these proposals but savings have to be found given the cuts in spending demanded by government. As Councillor Worth has said, "Doing nothing is not a option." OK, so here is a suggestion.

In looking into the background for these proposals I came across the Comparative Profile for public libraries compiled by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). In this the statistics for Lincolnshire Libraries are compared with the same statistics for a group of 15 other County Councils. These include not only neighbouring counties such as Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire but similar large rural counties such as North Yorkshire and Cumbria. On page 16 is a table itemising the Revenue Expenditure in 2011/12 for the Lincolnshire Library Service.

Now Jonathan Platt's letter states that the Library Service presently costs around £6 million per annum. But according to the CIPFA profile the true figure is actually over £11 million. That is because the CIPFA include the Support Service costs. It does not detail what they are but they must be very substantial to cost the county £4.6 million.

To allow for a fair comparison between the counties the expenditure is shown per 1,000 of the population. In all but two criteria Lincolnshire's expenditure is below average for the comparative group. It has the lowest expenditure on employees of the group and the lowest computer costs. It is third from bottom in Total Materials costs, fourth from bottom in expenditure on Premises and tenth out of sixteen in paying for Other Supplies and Services. All these figures are well below the average for the group. The two areas where Lincolnshire's expenditure was above the group average was in Transport - understandable given the size and scattered population of the county - where it was third highest after North Yorkshire and Leicestershire and in Support Services where it was by far and away the highest.

So a question - What are Support Services? Why is it that Staffordshire, North Yorkshire and Cumbria can keep these costs down to less than a pound per head of population while in Lincolnshire they cost £6.50 per head?

Question. Why were these costs excluded from the library review when they contribute to nearly half the cost?

Question. Has any attempt been made to look at these Support Service costs to see if savings can be made?

The fundamental flaw with these proposals is that they confuse a Library with a Book Lending Service. Libraries are so much more than that. They are information hubs. They are social centres. They link with schools to provide the children with an important asset. The staff are valued for their professional qualities. A library is more than a place to borrow a book.

These proposals are not about providing a service but all about saving money. If they are allowed to go through they will be a betrayal of not only the people of Lincolnshire but the very people Public Libraries were set up to help.




 


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