Alan Slingsby looks at the alternative plan for Lambeth’s libraries put forward by the head of library services
The alternative plan [PDF download] for Lambeth’s libraries put forward by Susanna Barnes, its current head of library services, points out that the borough’s library service is one of only two in Great Britain in the last year to improve its performance in visits, membership and issues of books and other material.
The council’s Culture 2020 report, agreed in October last year, said Barnes’ initial proposals, made last spring, could not meet the savings required in the necessary timescale because they did not specify how £500,000 extra income required would be found.
The council’s own plans included a surplus of £500,000 from its leisure management contract with GLL.
In November last year, as opposition to the council’s own plans mounted, its overview and scrutiny committee advised it that there should be urgent work, and funds, to “explore viable alternatives” to the Culture 2020 plans for libraries.
Barnes’ 10,000-word report refers to “the cooperative principles of the council”, saying that the alternative plan would involve “professional staff and local communities working together to deliver excellent services”.
The model its proposes would mean that “core service would be maintained in every site and accessible to the local community, but they would also be able to access a wider network of specialist services across the borough”.
The report says this has a “huge advantage” over the current council plans for “generic community hubs or a set of healthy living centres, as it provides a wider range of targeted services”.
In a look at the finances involved in the future of the borough’s libraries, the report includes a figure that has enraged opponents of the council plan – saying that a total of £3 million is listed by the council as the total capital cost of its plans to have GLL turn three libraries into gyms.
Looking at the wider issues involved, the report details the remarkable success of the library service over the last two years and the social and cultural reasons for continuing the policies that have made this possible.
“Library membership in the last 18 months has increased to the highest it has been for over 10 years,” says the report. “Issues and visits also continue to rise, bucking the national trend”.
It quotes figures for 2014-15, released in December, that show:
Lambeth ranks in England, Scotland and Wales:
- 12th for having the lowest number of libraries per resident
- 14th for the most expensive corporate recharges (what a library service has to pay for things like payroll services)
- 25th for number of volunteer hours.
Comparisons between the 13 inner London boroughs show that Lambeth is:
- 12th (bottom) for number of PCs (five) provided per 10,000 of population (this is in spite of 12% more computers having been provided than in the previous year)
- 11th for expenditure per 1,000 of population (once corporate recharges are removed)
- 11th for the number of staff per 1,000 population
- 2nd for number of volunteers and volunteer hours (previous year 10th, but two authorities did not report that year)
- 4th for book stock per 1000 population (previous year 12th)
- 7th for number of total books issues (10th for book issues per 1.000 population). The previous year it was 10th and 12th respectively.
The report says that figures for 2015-16 show a similar level of increased use with, to date, a 5.5% increase in visits, 3.4% in issues and 24% in members. More than 4,000 children took part in the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge (a 49% increase) and there was a 91% increase in the number of children who completed the challenge.
In the council’s May 2015 survey of residents, the report notes, use of libraries was second only in popularity to use of parks. Libraries were the only service of the 23 listed where use had gone up.
The service has also received national recognition for its work in supporting access to those with visual impairment and dyslexia.
The report also tackles the argument that Google and Kindle can replace library services.
It quotes a government report that says a major concern is that: “Socio-economic groups A and B don’t visit libraries. But because they run the country and the media and much else, that means they think that libraries are a thing of the past. They think that now we have Kindles we don’t need them, but they’re wrong. The most hard to reach people in Britain visit libraries”.
It quotes official figures for England released in December that show:
- Adults living in the most deprived areas visit the library more – 36.8% of those living in the most deprived areas visit their library, compared to 31.5% in the least deprived.
- An increasing proportion of adults from black and minority ethnic groups used the library more than adults from white ethnic groups – 49.3% compared to 31.8%. And the gap is increasing.
- More women than men visited a library in the past 12 months than men, 38.1% compared to 29.4%.
- Up to September 2015, 37.8% of non-working adults visited a library compared with 31.3 per cent of adults in work.
How it would work
The report says there are “several examples” of successful spin-outs of libraries from local authorities to mutual organisations.
It says York Library and Archives is a model for a mutual organisation for Lambeth
It would be a “community benefit society” with membership and voting rights open to everyone over 16, who lives, works or studies in Lambeth or is a library member.
Each member would have a single vote based on the issue of a single share valued at £1.
Youth advisory panels would represent the views of younger residents who would not be legally eligible to join.
Lambeth council would remain the statutory authority with responsibility for the library service, but the society would fulfil the council’s duty.
The council would monitor its performance.
The society would be jointly owned by staff (one-third) and community (two-thirds).
The report says there is already a high level of volunteering in Lambeth libraries.
In the last year more than 250 volunteers (12,280 hours) had helped support the service.
The report list what it says are the the “numerous benefits” of a staff and community mutual:
- A service that is too small too small would have less opportunity to deliver a full range of services and so maximise income streams
- The service needs a strong network of staffed libraries to develop a business model that can move towards being more self-sustaining
- This is a staff and community proposal and the local communities are committed to their local services’ survival
- The plan is in line with Lambeth council’s original cooperative principles that looked for communities to take responsibility for local services
- It contributes more effectively to equalities across the borough
- The five town centre libraries have limited scope to make future savings for the council if isolated from the others. Clapham is an expensive building to run (its building costs are roughly the same as all the six smaller libraries combined), Brixton and Streatham are at full capacity, (as is Clapham), West Norwood is proposed to be a sublet and the fifth library (although perhaps with potential for raising income) as a town centre library is far too small in size to deliver the level of service needed.
- Some of the neighbourhood libraries are in buildings which not only have the potential to develop wider services that can increase income, but also have rentable space.
- Lambeth council’s archives service is more closely aligned to the libraries than other parts of the council and has the potential to be developed in similar ways to libraries
- The break-up of libraries into different groups and forms of delivery increases costs for the council in management and monitoring
- Procurement for a small group of libraries has no economies of scale and increases costs
- Some of the core central services for the whole borough are based in neighbourhood libraries and loss of this space at Minet and Carnegie would increase the cost of delivering the statutory library service.
- Self-service libraries have “huge limitations” not only in disadvantaging those with disabilities but also around the reliability of technology for all users (such as the computers failing) so there remains a need for staff support.
- The plan addresses “unresolved equality issues” that are a concern in the options that are otherwise being considered
Barnes’ report notes the the council is currently considering proposals from voluntary groups to take over its Minet and Carnegie libraries at the same time as recommending that that these library buildings should be leased to GLL to turn into gyms.