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Ealing and Northfield

Libraries – don’t be fooled

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.

6 replies on “Libraries – don’t be fooled”

Phil

Yes I like your idea of economies proposed by one of the main book sellers in the UK – especially if it means no Library closures. One building has to be used for the community whatever its specific function. What would be its future use?

Item 28 on 22 Feb at the Cabinet meeting – the last item. (when most are asleep or bored).

Approval to invite and evaluate tenders for housing contracts, and to extend heating and major voids contracts.

This document (which a couple of days before the meeting is in a total mess and so implies sloppiness) contains not one single suggestion of looking over the boundaries of the borough to SHARE SERVICES.

The Domestic Gas Heating Contract and the District Gas Heating Contract are a couple of areas of revenue expenditure for which approval is requested. These seem to cover around £3M per annum.

One of the objectives in the document is to obtain value for money. Well I think what you pay for a Bentley is value for money – its looks performance durability and engineering are superb. Trouble is you didn’t reduce my CT and so I can’t afford one.

The flavour of the proposed contracts is that we aim for high standards. But there is no statement which says that we are looking for tried and tested contractors whose overheads are lower and who are likely to come in with more competitive quotes. And believe me there have always been contractors who may not be household names in the Council maintenance industry but who nevertheless through smart working can offer better prices.

Gas heating contracts so easily could be offered to cover a number of council territories instead of just one. These new contracts should be short term to enable work to be done to extend the service further afield.

Item 28 also requests the extension of contracts. No mention of the amount of savings envisaged. I should sell rubber stamps outside the chamber doors.

What is your OSC doing?

Hi Phil,

I don’t agree with the decision to invest in a new car park either, I think the council should be investing in better public transport instead.

I know the government is into the Big Society volunteering idea (at the expense of people’s jobs), but there is not much evidence that public libraries being run by volunteers works. Working on a library counter can be quite a stressful job once a queue starts building up and someone’s angrily disputing their fines, someone else needs help using the photocopier because it’s stopped working and a bunch of restless kids want to take books out. How many people consistently have the time free during the week to staff their local library, how many have the IT and people skills to cope with the public patiently and efficiently and how many would be willing to unpaid?

Emily

George,

Cabinet is tomorrow. If the opposition challenges (“calls in” in the jargon) the paper you refer to it will go to OSC. I am just a member of OSC and we can only scrutinise what we are asked to scrutinise. You make some good points. I remember Jason Stacey in the cabinet chair making such challenges all of the time. I have not seen Cllr Bell in action – life is too short.

Emily,

I volunteered to run my school library when I was a kid. I have been involved in running my rowing club for 20 years. I am helping to run a rowing race on Sunday. I was treasurer of an event for 5 years. People run charity shops. Why is this idea so far-fetched? What volunteering do you do?

Hi Phil,

You asked what volunteering I do. As a student I volunteered for three years as a befriender to a person with mental health problems, dropping round their house to spend time with them once a week. I also regularly helped out with activities for disabled children at a local Mencap centre and with clearing rubbish from a local graveyard.

I work full-time now and commuting to central London from Hanwell means I’m out of the house twelve hours a day, so obviously I don’t have as much time to volunteer. Anyone who has to work for a living will be in the same situation, it sounds like you wouldn’t have time to volunteer on week days either. However, I look after the website for a local community group and help them run events occasionally too. I can do that because I can fit the time around when I’m available, which is different hours each week.

You mention charity shops as an example of volunteering, but the shops are usually run by paid managers who often struggle to recruit volunteers to cover all the hours. Also, while I think charity shop volunteers do fantastic work, it is different work to staffing a library and I would argue less complex in the range of activities being carried out. In a charity shop you don’t, for example, need to talk people through downloading e-books or using online databases, help someone format their CV, sing songs to toddlers or organise a reading group.

Under the Public Libraries and Museums Act (1964) local authorities are required by statute to provide a public library service which is comprehensive and efficient, and available to all who wish to use it. I have nothing against volunteering, but question whether the same level of service can really be provided by volunteers as by paid library staff. In my opinion it cannot.

Emily,

Thanks for your reply. Large areas of our national life are driven by volunteers such as yourself. I could name school govenors for one.

I don’t want to get hung up on volunteering in libraries – it may be a good solution in some places. I fully acknowledge that it is not some kind of golden bullet.

My basic case is that there is no excuse for closing any libraries in Ealing. If any are closed it is because the Labour administration puts its own priorities ahead of residents’ (such as selling off frontline buildings to build new council offices – the property strategy) and fails to confront the producer interests in the service itself. Too many of the staff a over-qualified for and unmotivated to perform the basic job of making sure the doors are open on time and providing good service with a smile to residents. The libraries are not there for the staff and it does not take much training or qualifications to smile, say hello nicely and put books back on shelves. We might complain about a dumbed down service but we don’t have to put up with no service.

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