Two former Lambeth Labour councillors have called on central government to appoint commissioners to investigate the council’s “failure to conduct its financial affairs in accordance with the law”.
Carol Boucher and Fred Taggart are, respectively, the former chair and secretary of the Carnegie Community Trust (CCT), who resigned these posts when, after more than five years of work, Lambeth council rejected the trust’s plan to take over the Carnegie library in Herne Hill via a process known as asset transfer.
Local government secretary James Brokenshire last year refused an appeal to intervene over what Boucher and Taggart told him were “serious failings” in the council’s financial management and decision-making and its use of public money and assets.
The local government department told them that “the validity of individual spending decisions” was not a matter for government auditors.
It conceded that it has powers to investigate councils, but only “in exceptional cases of most serious concern and systemic failure”.
Fred Taggart who is honorary secretary of the Brixton Advice Centre on Railton Road and has worked with it for more than 30 years, was awarded an MBE for services to regeneration and charity in 2016. Carol Boucher ran her own marketing business for many years.
The two have frequently been condemned by Defend the Ten campaigners – who want the Carnegie library to continue to be run by Lambeth council – as being agents of its ruling Labour group.
Their most recent letter to James Brokenshire says they are “puzzled and surprised” by his interpretation of their request for intervention.
“Our complaint is that Lambeth council engaged us in a five-year process to take ownership of the Carnegie library that required enormous amounts of work by volunteers and professional consultants, as well as £100k of council grant expenditure,” they told the minister.
“We embarked on this process with the benefit of repeated personal assurances from the leader of the council, the deputy leader and appropriate cabinet members that, provided we complied with Lambeth’s requirements and produced a viable proposal, they would transfer the building to a charitable body.
“It is not right that just before concluding what was Lambeth council’s own asset transfer process it should be able to simply and unilaterally terminate the process.”
They ask the minister to act to “create a level playing field between a local authority and the voluntary/community sector in asset transfer processes” that would prevent a council starting the asset transfer of a building to a community group and then arbitrarily stopping it without good reason.
The Carnegie Community Trust was set up in 2012 with the intention of taking ownership, via asset transfer from the council, of the library.
But after hundreds of hours of volunteer work over five years, a grant of £100,000 from the council, and an assurance from the council’s chosen advisers, the giant accounting firm PWC, that the trust’s plans were viable, the council decided to lease most of the building to its leisure provider GLL.
Boucher and Taggart point out that there was no tender for this move and that, at a stroke, it destroyed the trust’s business plan.
The private gym that GLL has installed in the basement of the building will not pay rent for several years and the council itself paid for the expensive excavation of the basement.
The remaining four members of the Carnegie Community Trust have continued to work with the council and have been advertising since October last year for a project manager on an eight-month contract.
They have been offered a lease by the council, but not, so far, an asset transfer.
Council welcomes ‘constructive meetings’
Cllr Sonia Winifred, Lambeth cabinet member for equalities and culture, said: “Carnegie library is fully open and operational, with a new gym in the basement, expanding the building’s offer to residents and protecting the library’s future for many years to come.
“We’ve worked hard and invested to keep all our libraries open in the face of severe cuts to our budget, while hundreds of libraries in other areas across the country have been closed in recent years.
“The council is still working with the Carnegie Community Trust and the group have a presence in the building with a view to completing the asset transfer process.
“GLL and the CCT have had constructive meetings about working alongside each other in the building. Future rent will include a share of profits from the gym.
“Lambeth council has successfully undertaken several asset transfer agreements in recent years and we hope that the Carnegie and CCT agreement will work in much the same way as others.”
Efforts to communicate ‘ignored’
The Defend the 10 Libraries campaign said in a separate statement that all its efforts to communicate with Lambeth council had been completely ignored.
“We find it unacceptable that Lambeth Labour council, in aiming to make a budget cut in 2016 of £800k pa actually spent much more, to pursue a policy of library cuts,” it said.
“By listening to library users, Lambeth would have saved money and kept its libraries open and staffed, instead of the introduction of the four mainly un-staffed libraries we have now.”
The campaign said that the council’s original budget proposals for 2019 had included a proposed cut in funding for libraries.
“The government that has pushed austerity for the last 10 years is as weak as it has ever been and Lambeth councillors should be joining with residents to demand more money for services, not implementing the cuts.”
Defend the Ten said that the council’s stated aim was “delivering value for money”, yet, it went on: “According to an examination of the accounts, the waste on council libraries strategies (2016-2018) currently totals around £8 million – a large chunk of the £43m the council now claims it needs to save.
It said a proposed cut of £285,000 to libraries – which was later reversed by the council – had been late was unjustified, destructive of the council’s claimed service priorities, and showed “profound ignorance how the library service works and what it does”.
Gardens left ‘in sorry state’
The Carnegie Community Trust is forming a group to restore parts of the Carnegie building’s gardens that have been left “in a sorry state” by construction work.
“The rear garden has been landscaped, however the border gardens urgently need restoring,” it says.
This would involve “planning and seeking funds, and eventually planting to restore a lovely garden”.
Post amended on 25 February to make clear that Lambeth council has reversed plans for cuts to its libraries budget.