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LCC Denies Libraries Any Crumbs

September 27th 2014

Louth library
It's time to talk about manufactured austerity. It turns out, according to the county council's own data, that they have total reserves of over 165 million. A lot of these are earmarked for particular projects, such as for adverse weather, the Lincoln Eastern Bypass, parking enforcement, and forty or so other things. But there's something called the "financial volatility reserve", which seems to be nothing more than a rainy day pot, and it has a whopping 43 million in it.*

So LCC has all of that money, collected from taxpayers, and it isn't doing anything with it. In the meantime, the council executive has been talking a lot about austerity and the need to save even more cash. LCC isn't our bank.

On Friday, 26th September the full council of LCC met in Lincoln. Finances were on the agenda, including a vote on the budget and amendments proposed by the Labour group and the Lincolnshire Independents.

Questions for the executive

Councillor Marianne Overton asked Councillor Nick Worth whether alternative proposals for libraries would be allowed to be put forward again. Councillor Worth responded that the new library consultation in October would be "primarily about putting in alternative proposals."

Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) are putting in a bid for running Lincolnshire's libraries. Councillor Phil Dilks asked Councillor Worth: "Why have you still not supplied all the information requested by Greenwich Leisure, and when will you stop pouring our money down the drain on a lost cause and finally listen to the people of Lincolnshire and restore our libraries?"

This was Councillor Worth's response: "We have supplied all the information that Greenwich Leisure have asked for. We have gone into some considerable detail and asked some very complicated questions that they have asked for. As far as I am aware, everything that they have asked for they have got."

I have some experience of asking LCC for information about their library support services budget, and these are some of the details GLL probably need to know.

Councillor John Hough asked Councillor Martin Hill about the LCC's "substantial underspend." and quoted another figure of "at least 12 million" for this year's underspend, asking: "When are you going to get a grip on the finances of this council and actually spend money on the services for Lincolnshire people instead of crying wolf about how little money we've got?"

Councillor Hill declined to apologise for underspending. "We are now quite clear that 90 million annual savings will be required in addition to the 150 million we're already on target to do," he said. "That underspend will be required to get us through the very difficult days ahead." He then went on to blame the previous Labour government for overspending.

This is strange, because debt has increased significantly under the Tories.

Councillor Jo Churchill asked Councillor Worth how the council was engaging with volunteers and advising them.

"I want to give an assurance that we are committed to them," Councillor Worth said. "And as of today there will be a letter going out... personally from me to every community group that has expressed an interest in running a community library... to thank them for the effort that they've put in, but also to say to them that they are very welcome still if they want to add value to the activities that already go on in libraries. ... I have had a few who have asked whether it would be possible to use volunteers to have additional hours, and we're certainly receptive to that, and if they are interested in doing that then please do either contact me or the officers about that. And alongside that we have a large package of training that is available for them should they want to do it."

It's no surprise the executive are keen on volunteers, because they're not keen on paying professional librarians.

Amendments to the financial update

Councillor Marianne Overton proposed an amendment to the council's finance plans, to do with putting in a park and ride in Lincoln, and other funds for Tallington Bridge. The council voted against these proposals.

The proposal was to take 294,000 from the 43 million "financial volatility fund" to restore the library service to the way it was before the cuts, until 31st March.

Councillor John Hough said: " In July the decision made by the executive board last December was quashed by the High Court.... Councillor Worth, ... seems to think Lincolnshire County Council actually won that decision. In the months leading up to the executive's decision and afterwards, thousands of Lincolnshire people had made known that they wanted Lincolnshire's libraries to remain open with paid staff. They showed how they valued the libraries. People in Lincolnshire found it hard to understand why the libraries had to be so shockingly cut, when millions of pounds had not been spent on anything at all. People also wondered why in the light of the court's judgement to quash the decision of the executive, the effects of that executive decision to reduce library opening hours, to get rid of more than a hundred mobile stops, to lose over 170 jobs, were not reversed."

Councillor Rob Parker seconded the proposal, saying: "We're saying we value the library service."

Councillor John Marriott defended the failure to spend the reserve with reference the "massive cuts" faced by local government. He laid the blame for library cuts on the deficit, and called library users as a "a very small minority".

To me, this comment perfectly illustrates what's wrong with the Conservative attitude to literacy. Library use is like an immunisation against illiteracy, and it's an immunisation that benefits the whole community. It doesn't matter if 100% don't need libraries, because we all benefit from an educated population. The cuts in hours and the falling amount of stock have eroded the numbers of people using libraries in Lincolnshire, but it's pathetic to use that as an argument to withdraw even more funding, because then it becomes a vicious circle of falling use which leads to cuts, which leads to further reduced hours and even less use.

Councillor Victoria Ayling called the original library consultation "fundamentally flawed" and expressed her support for Labour's amendment.

Councillor Paul Wood said: "It particularly bothers me keeping a high level of reserve when we're talking about cutting services."

"The reason it is different to the national picture is that we know the money is there," Councillor Sarah Dodds said.

But that didn't convince Councillor Worth, who stated: "I don't think it's that efficient a use of the underspend to return things to how they were."

Councillor Nev Jackson countered by saying: "The cost is not significantly high if you're investing in young people." He also criticised changes in opening hours that make it harder for people to visit libraries.

Councillor Charmaine Morgan spoke of the value of science, saying: "Books and computers play a key role... Lincolnshire cannot afford not to support the libraries."

Whilst Councillor Roseanne Kirk asked: "Why does LCC want to wash their hands of a service... that would increase literacy levels?"

Councillor Phil Dilks said: "It's 43m that we as a council demanded... to spend on vital public services." He described the failure to spend that money on services as "immoral".

However, Councillor Hill continued to squander his chance of seeming even a little bit reasonable, saying : "We will have to reduce our budget every year by 90m."

The Labour amendment was lost, whilst the main budget was carried. This seemed like a clear case of the Tory contingent digging their heels in, in spite of a judicial ruling against them and the clear wishes of thousands of Lincolnshire people. It is as though they are immune to all criticism.

Motion of no confidence

Councillor Victoria Ayling brought a motion of no confidence in Councillor Hill, and the failed library consultation which led to a judicial review was a major factor in this. However, this didn't attract support from many councillors.

"Have I got confidence in the leader or the executive? Not now, not ever." Councillor Dilks said. But he refused to support what he described as "grandstanding".

Councillor Charmaine Morgan branded the library consultation as "arrogance within the cabinet," and pointed out that "even now we still haven't had that simple word that can make so much difference: sorry."

Councillor Worth revealed that the existing consultation would stand, and that the new consultation in October will be an extension to it. "I have nothing to apologise for," he said.

Councillor Parker was critical of politicians who think "money matters more than listening to local people."

Councillor Overton said: "It's about listening. It's about consultation being genuine consultation."

However, in spite of the motion being condemned by various councillors, Councillor Hill went on to demonstrate why he attracts this kind of attention when he said "every single council which has tried to reform and modernise its library services has been taken to judicial review. Every single one."

Really?

The vote of no confidence in Councillor Hill wasn't carried, with seven votes for to 57 against and two abstentions. In my view the failure of this motion is neither here nor there, when so many Tory councillors have been hoodwinked by the austerity dogma and fail to recognise the value of providing essential services like libraries.

Devolution, and tantrums

There were other discussions about roads, devolution, and other issues. This included a baffling motion by Councillor Chris Pain which in my view seemed unnecessarily person, and which led to a lot of shouting in the council chamber. I'm not going to delve into that in this blog post, it's long enough already.

Tweets discussion the meeting were on the hashtag #lincscclive, and you can watch the full webcast online if you have several hours to spare.

* LCC agenda reports. See page 130 for the figures I quoted.


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