Tonight’s Northfield library consultation meeting was packed. Something like 75 seats were laid out. All were filled. Add in the number standing and the total number was about 140 after the last 10 or so had crammed in after council leader Julian Bell’s speech.
Last night I suggested Cllr Bell’s “I didn’t come in to politics to do this” speech lasted 20 minutes. Tonight I timed it at 8.5 minutes. Clearly it only felt like 20 minutes last night. Rather like last night a number of Labour councillors turned up to defend the indefensible and offer moral support to their beleagured cabinet colleagues. Cllr Manro from Greenford North, Cllr Wall from Hobbayne in Hanwell and Cllr Dheer from Dormers Wells in Southall.
Walpole residents and local blow hards, Judy and Arthur Breens, spoke loudly and insistently for their genius idea of allocating the total funds of both Northfield and Walpole ward forums in perpetuity to funding the library. Apart from the technical issue that this money is largely capital and not revenue, it would mean that nothing would be available for local parks, transport and environment projects ever again.
The new administration got a huge amount of flack for the Southall car park with one questioner again asking whether Labour couldn’t “put your car park on hold?” in order to save the libraries. Leader Bell proceeded to get a bit emotional at this point and suggest that the previous administration had “taken £13.5 million out of Southall”. This is nonsense. The council sold a row of shops that it owned. A corporate asset not a public one. There was some bitterness from the shop keepers that the council did not give them premises at a silly price but the rest of the borough was well served by this transaction. This is Labour’s “asset stripping” which they use to justify building a £5.5 million car park in Southall, a project that will increase Southall’s congestion rather than fix it.
Cllr Dheer got the chance to defend to the Southall car park from the floor without declaring himself as a Southall Labour councillor. When Northfield councillor Mark Reen spoke following the anonymous Dheer he was mildly rebuked by Labour’s Cllr Johnson for having the temerity to speak as a councillor.
Much of the meeting was devoted to the administration pleading with the audience to volunteer as individuals or organisations. One lady suggested her organisation might be interested. On the whole the mood of the meeting was skeptical. Cllr Bell suggested that “Northfield is an area that would want to volunteer to support its library”. Apparently he is not making this suggestion in Labour heartlands of Acton, Greenford and Southall. He did say though that the Labour chief whip had suggested making volunteering in libraries compulsory for Labour councillors. I am not sure that Labour gets volunteering!
I managed to pop up and suggest that the council might like to look at staffing and work practices across the whole library service which is the only fair and sensible way to trim the library service. Libraries such as Central (26 FTE), Acton (12.3 FTE), Southall (12.6 FTE) and Greenford (10.8 FTE) are no more productive than the smaller libraries in spite of automation. We should also look at staff terms and conditions as you can’t really run a retail operation on 35 hour work weeks. Another idea would be single-handed working for smaller libraries. Cllr Bell was at pains to confirm that this will be done as a part of a whole service review. I suspect that he has been badly advised by a service which is more interested in doing things the same old way than serving its users.
One idiot got very worked up over the banks and politicians in general and managed to throw the radio mike at the council staff trying to run the meeting. Apart from that it was a reasonably polite meeting that allowed Northfield to show the administration that it will not be short changed.