By Alan Slingsby and Mark Wadie
Library campaigners launched a bitter attack on Lambeth Labour councillors yesterday as a full meeting of the council backed plans to turn some libraries into gyms in co-operation with its leisure services provider GLL.
On the same day, library staff in Brixton joined a strike by workers across Lambeth to protest at cuts to services. They said they could not put off action as books were already being removed from shelves.
The changes, which are part of a plan by Lambeth council to reduce spending on cultural services by £4 million in the next three years, will see an estimated 25% cut in the workforce.
Local librarian Tim O’Dell, 52, a Unison trade union representative, said: “We feel that the council are not listening. The will of the people of Lambeth is against the cuts and there is no support whatsoever within the library staff for the plans.
“The need for libraries is growing, not diminishing. The council need to re-think. That is why we staged this walkout.”
A ballot of library staff in Lambeth is pending, but Mr O’Dell said that there was a need for more urgent action.
He added: “An increasingly isolated group of councillors are trying to push the plan through before it can be overturned.
“On Monday, staff in one of the libraries were asked to start removing books from the shelves. We couldn’t wait any longer to take action.”
A speech in favour of the plans by Jane Edbrooke, the councillor leading the scheme, at a full council meeting in Elmcourt School, West Norwood, last night (18 November) was inaudible as protesters shouted and booed.
There were angry interruptions too as Labour group leader Lib Peck addressed the protesters directly to explain the council’s position.
She said the libraries most affected by the changes were those with fewer users and said that services in other larger and more-used libraries had been maintained.
The council was unable to spend so much money on the smaller libraries, she said. “But what we have managed to do, which I think is important, is to retain the facilities”. The protesters’ angry response led mayor Donatus Anyanwu to stop proceedings and tell them: “You want people to listen. Please listen to the councillor.”
Lib Peck continued by saying that the council was maintaining services in the five town-centre libraries in Lambeth that were the most used.
The council remained ambitious for its library service, she said, pointing out that it had opened a brand-new library in Clapham in 2102, had plans for a new one in Norwood and remained committed to a new north Lambeth library.
“We have got to be honest about the fact that we cannot put so much money into our neighbourhood libraries. I regret that, but it is actually the truth, I am afraid.”
It meant that there would be fewer services in them, said Cllr Peck. But, she continued, they would remain in their buildings and be “more vibrant”. Once again interrupted by cries of “rubbish”, she responded that without the changes “there might not be a library at all”. Protesters continued to shout at her as she said opening hours would double.
“I think this is fair,” said Cllr Peck. “In these challenging times, it is our responsibility as a council is to speak up for the services that people rely on.
“Some of those people are so vulnerable that they cannot express their needs. I think it is our duty to do our best to represent them and to find workable, pragmatic and honest solutions for many of the other services that we know are being impacted by this government’s devastating cuts.”
Labour councillors applauded her speech as protesters continued to jeer and boo.
Commenting on the vote, Laura Swaffield of Friends of Lambeth Libraries said the council had no answer to mounting criticism of its policy which it was forcing it through despite universal condemnation.
She said the “crazy” idea of gyms in libraries would not make the £800,000 savings required. “At most, it will save £485,000,” she said.
She accused councillors of failing to investigate a plan by library managers which they had concealed that would keep all the borough’s ten libraries running and save £800,000 or more.
The GLL deal, put together in secret, would see £4 million spent on installing gyms that nobody wanted or needed. And Lambeth would take all the financial risks while GLL took any profits.
She accused the council and GLL of embarking on the scheme with “no business plan, no market research – not even a basic feasibility study”.
Laura Swaffield, who addressed the council meeting, said Cllr Edbrooke had made “not the slightest attempt” to answer any of the points campaigners had made.
“It was an embarrassing sight. She just mumbled her usual spiel about the horrid government and Lambeth’s cleverness – she does it faster every time. It’s become inaudible.
“But that doesn’t matter to Labour councillors. They vote the way they’re told. They don’t care what they are doing.”
Council statement on the plans.