The Independent London Newspaper
13th March 2016

Save Our Libraries - Following meeting, Labour more upbeat – but won’t sign up for no closure pledge

    Campaigners take their message to the Town Hall last night (Wednesday)

    Published: 28 April 2011

    CAMDEN’S Labour councillors last night (Wednesday) re­fused to guarantee that every library in the borough would stay open – but dropped the biggest hints yet that they are working out a deal to avoid closures.

    And at a special all-member meeting at the Town Hall, the ruling party repeatedly distanced itself from the idea of private companies coming in to run them.

    While Labour chiefs have talked bleakly about what cuts to the library budget may mean for some branches, leisure supremo Councillor Tulip Siddiq told councillors she had ideas to expand the service rather than limit it.

    Her predictions of a future for Camden’s libraries for the borough’s children were in marked contrast to prev­ious gloomy forecasts.

    That said, Labour amended a motion from the Liberal Democrat group, deleting a pledge to keep all 13 of Camden’s libraries open.

    This would be a hard promise for the council to make given the buildings containing both St Pancras Library and Camden Town Library are subject to possible property sale deals. 

    Behind the scenes, there are discussions that these libraries could yet be relocated.

    Opponents took Labour’s decision to amend the motion and refocus the debate on funding cuts from central government as a point of weakness in their claims to be fighting to avoid closures.

    The meeting, called by the Liberal Democrats after months of debate over the future of Camden’s libraries, was mired in controversy before Mayor Jonathan Simpson banged his ­gavel to call the proceedings in the Town Hall council chamber in Judd Street to order. 

    Labour members said the meeting, which cost £9,000 to stage in front of a public gallery packed with worried library users, was a waste of money and simply amounted to political point-scoring by opposition parties. 

    They believed that because their own  £25,000 consultation scheme had yet to be properly collated, the motion being proposed at the meeting would be disregarding the views of  the 6,000 library users who responded. 

    Cllr Simpson revealed he had turned down a request by a private company to receive a depu­tation outlining how they could run the borough’s libraries at the current levels of service on reduced funds. 

    Instead, councillors heard three different deputations. Unison convener George Binette called on the Town Hall to rule out any possible privatisation – the idea floated recently that outside operators could take on the management of the service.

    He said: “We want a publicly run, publicly accountable service. Twenty-seven jobs have already been lost in the library service in the last 18 months. That is a 17 per cent reduction in the workforce. We do not want to see a divisive scramble between ser­vice users. The fight to maintain libraries must not be seen in isolation.”

    Brookfield Primary School headteacher Mark Stubbings also took to the floor, and told the chamber that his pupils relied heavily on the Highgate branch library. 

    He said: “We call on the council to make a commitment not to close any libraries. They are one of the few public spaces left. 

    “Highgate library serves three council estates. Its learning centre provides training for children and adults. It provides the internet in a safe environment. It gives a crucial link to council services.” 

    He added: “Highgate library helps complement reading and teaching at my school. All classes visit and each pupil has a card. On top of organised visits, many come in after school. The skilled staff run well-attended groups  and the Friends provide reading progress prizes for my pupils. It brings different people, and different parts of our community, together.” 

    Heath and Hampstead Society chairman Tony Hillier also spoke against library cuts, as did Yasmin Allen from the Friends of Queen’s Crescent Library.

    After hearing depu­tations, Cllr Siddiq rose to speak and the political temperature soon reached boiling point as all three parties slung accusations across the floor of the chamber over who was to blame for cuts and what the future would hold for library provision. 

    Labour councillors stood up one after an­other, blaming the Tory and Lib Dem coalition government for forcing them make unpalatable cuts to public services. 

    In what appeared to be an organised strategy, several spoke forthrightly against the use of ­private operators.

    Opposition members insisted Camden’s Labour administration had not done enough to explore all the possibil­ities open to them.

    Cllr Siddiq said: “The libraries belong to the public, not the politicians, and I am proud the responses have come from right across Camden. 

    “We have been contacted by people asking for the forms to be translated into Chinese, Somali, Bengali and Urdu.”

    She then added that the scale of the responses had been so vast she wanted to radically rethink – and even expand – the services provided.

    She said: “I want to provide a service for generations to come. We want more e-books, more study space and to help young people and grown-ups improve their literacy.”

    But she  poured cold water on the idea that private companies could do this more efficiently.

    Cllr Siddiq said: “Since we have been running this consultation I have been approached by private firms who want to take over the running of our library service. I remain unconvinced by private organisations’ proposals. This is in both the terms of economic value and social value that they offer. 

    “The decisions have not been made, and the analysis of the results has not been done. I am disappointed with those who say we have already made our minds up.”

    Lib Dem leader Keith Moffitt said: “This is an important issue and I make no apologies for calling this meeting. The Labour group should simply answer yes or no – are they willing to guarantee the future of all 13 libraries?”

    Conservative Swiss Cottage councillor Don Williams said his party had put together an alternative budget that would guarantee the future of libraries. 

    He said: “In our bud­get we had money to make sure we’d keep our libraries open. It got a stamp of approval from the director of finance. 

    “I think we have got the money if we could move towards making libraries more sustainable.” 

    He called on Camden to follow other local authorities examples. He added: “Berkshire council’s libraries have been run as a trust. They have received donations and help from volunteers. We need to explore such things as trusts and sponsorship.”

    Speaking after the meeting members of various Camden Public Library User Groups (C-Plug) expressed disappointment in the tone of the debate – and the result of the motion.

    Former Brecknock school headteacher Linda Lefevre, now a member of the Friends of Highgate Library, said: “It is very worrying that there was not a commitment to keep all libraries open, and no recognition that the consultation was flawed.”

    Her views were echoed by fellow Highgate library user Grace Livingstone. She said: “It was a simple motion – keep a commitment not to close libraries. Instead it became party political – and in the process they have managed to lose a lot of people’s good will.”

    Library user Sara Ayech added: “To see our elected councillors acting like this, shouting at each other across party divisions is very disappointing.”

    Former C-Plug chairwoman Helen Marcus said: “Any debate is worthwhile but I was disappointed at the dogmatic spiel used. 

    “I also find it concerning that no one has questioned the whole budget. The turnover of Camden Council is £1billion and we are talking about savings of £1.6m. This sounds nonsense. No one discussed this.”

    A final decision on the future of Camden's libraries is due in June.

    All to play for - What people want from their libraries

    C-Plug member Nigel Steward:

    “We need a new culture to provide bottom-up dialogue, not top-down rhetoric, as so often has been the case in recent years. Any discussion is good but I would have preferred a meeting without the threat of closures hanging over us. We need to establish a two-way dialogue.”

    Unison convener Philip Lewis: 

    “We are back where  we were before. They have the right to call a special meeting but this was £9,000 thrown away. There has not been a clear indication of what the future holds. Councillor Siddiq said all options are still open – which means privatisation is still on the agenda.”

    Heath and Hampstead Society chairman Tony Hillier:

    “Libraries need to be multi-purpose in providing services and must not become simply boxes of books. Options need to be explored to actually expand the services provided on smaller budgets. We do not have the time to explore this before June. I should be delayed.”

    Friends of Queen’s Crescent library Yasmin Allen:

    “Our library is valued. It is in the heart of our community where there are two under­privileged wards. It’s refurbishment means it is well-used for learning and as a meeting place. We need long-term guarantees that it will be here for future generations.”







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