Tim Coates, who has run the Waterstones chain, gave the presentation above on the Isle of Wight at a public meeting on Tuesday and to councillors on Wednesday. Coates really knows about the book trade trade, but also public libraries as it happens. In a very understated way he lays out the kind of thinking that allows an old-fashioned public service to be radically changed, saving a lot of money and actually improving the service.
I was in charge of libraries in Ealing for two years, the last two years of the previous Conservative administration. When I was in charge I was very keen to pursue just the kind of changes that Coates proposes in the video. Indeed a package of changes that took £400K out of the back office and saw the closure of the old hut in Perivale Central Sportsground was put in to place two years ago as a part of the budget setting process. £100K was used to fund redundancy costs (which should be coming free again soon), £185K was re-deployed to the front office, ie more staff and longer opening hours in libraries, and £115K was released as a saving. This was in the context of a massive £3.8 million staff budget, 125 FTE, in 2008/9. At the time 23% of staff costs were in the back office.
In 2008/9 it was clear that there was much further to go in this process and Tim Coates’ presentation underlines that for me.
The future of Ealing’s libraries is currently in question, as is the case all over the country. I attended the protest at Ealing Central Library on 5th March after which the current Labour portfolio holder, Councillor Kamaljit Dhindsa, cabinet member for customer and community services, said:
We are reviewing the library service and no decisions have been made on any closures although we are looking at the option to have fewer but better buildings.
This month we will start to talk to residents about possible changes to the service. No decision will be made until the review and consultation are complete.
This is code for “we are going to close old libraries”. The libraries in the firing line are Hanwell and Perivale. In the Tory manifesto in 2010 we promised to:
Modernise Acton, Hanwell, Perivale and Southall libraries.
The reason we did this is because we were committed to libraries, we had never closed a library in four years, and these were the libraries that had been left unmodernised. Southall is probably safe as it is at the centre of five safe Labour wards. Acton will get rolled up into the whole Acton regeneration programme which the current administration sees as being a must deliver promise. That leaves Hanwell and Perivale. Looking closely at the budget strategy document to be agreed at cabinet on Tuesday it is clear that there is no new capital for libraries over the next four years.
When I spoke at the event on 5th April I told the small group there that there was no excuse for closing libraries. Although there is a hard revenue squeeze there is still fat in the libraries back office and management structure to go for. Add in some devolution of power to local libraries and maybe some volunteering and it could get a lot worse before you had to close libraries.
The capital crunch is arguably less severe than the revenue one. The council plans to spend £13.3 million over the next four years improving its own premises and £5.5 million on a new car park in Southall but there is nothing for libraries. These are Labour’s choices. The fact that Hanwell and Perivale libraries are underinvested will be used as a pretext for closing them, but it is Labour’s decision not to invest that drives their decision to close. Wait until you hear they are rolling up capital receipts from the sites into their property strategy to help fund shiny new offices for council staff and compare and contrast with the improvements delivered by the Tories at Ealing Central and Northolt libraries to name two.
If any libraries close it is because Labour wills it. No other reason.