Lambeth council’s cabinet committee last night voted through its controversial plans to put gyms in libraries amid rowdy scenes as protesters were locked out of the meeting.
More than 200 people packed into the assembly hall of Dunraven School in Streatham and several times interrupted proceedings with shouting and jeers, while the excluded protesters – who were eventually admitted – could be heard banging on the door.
At one point, as cllr Jim Dickson was speaking, they broke into a chant of “No gyms, no gyms”.
As well as dozen or more opponents of the scheme, who made detailed and emotional comments on how the changes to Lambeth’s libraries would affect their communities, Helen Hayes. MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, spoke at the meeting. Herne Hill’s Carnegie library in her constituency is one of those affected.
She said she fully recognised the problems that massive cuts in government grants posed for the council and for the most vulnerable people in the community who relied on it.
Councillors stressed throughout the meeting that they were struggling to keep libraries open at the same time as maintaining services for disadvantaged children and adults, that were also suffering severe cuts.
The MP said this dilemma was a result of the policies of the current government and its coalition predecessor.
She “believed very strongly” in the value of libraries to communities and said to applause that the council had to work creatively to keep them open. She listed a number of concerns about what would happen to her local libraries.
Bill Linskey, chair of the Brixton Society, pointed out that the Lambeth archives currently occupy about two thirds of the Minet library in Myatt’s Fields and asked what room would be left if a gym and a residual library had to share the building. Council officers said they were developing plans to move the archive.
Cllr Dickson successfully suggested an addition to the resolution before the cabinet that stressed the centrality of libraries to the council’s work.
The meeting also agreed plans to set up “Homes for Lambeth” a “special purpose vehicle” enabling the council itself – via Homes for Lambeth – to build homes for council and private rent.
Despite warnings about the legal, financial and political risks of such a move, the cabinet agreed to the plan.
The paper presented to the meeting listed several other ground-breaking schemes by local authorities to tackle the growing housing crisis.
One key aspect of the Lambeth scheme would be that, unless government introduces new legislation, homes built under the scheme would not be eligible for right-to-buy.
It will involve setting up one or more private companies that are wholly owned by the council, allowing it to act “in a truly commercial way”.
As well as building new homes, the company would also be involved in the “regeneration” of existing council housing stock and could be involved in developing commercial premises.
One of the sites suggested for possible regeneration is that of the Minet library.