Monday 12 October 2015

The hollowed out library: Barnet Tories' war on public services continues

What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversation?” 

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


"And what is the use of a library building', thought Mrs Angry, "without a library service?"

- Mrs Angry, Broken Barnet. (or: Through the Looking Glass).

There was a strike, here in Broken Barnet, last Wednesday, by council staff, organised to show their opposition to the relentless privatisation of our local council services, and the loss of local jobs.

The new Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, came and stood in the early morning rain at one of the three picket lines, to show his support for council employees, observing that Barnet's programme of outsourcing had been the most brutal of all. 

And indeed it has, and continues to be.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell with Barnet Unison leader - and General Secretary candidate - John Burgess; Labour councillors Houston, Langleben and Or Bach - and token woman, Mrs Angry.

Another picket line was at East Finchley library: see top, strongly supported by staff, local residents, Labour councillors - and passing traffic.

On the day of the industrial action, ten out of fourteen libraries were shut - quite an achievement, and demonstrating the show of feeling amongst library staff, 46% of whom had learned, only days before, that they will lose their jobs, as a result of savage cuts in budget about to be approved by our Tory councillors.

Inconvenient, no doubt, to find your local library shut for the day.

But soon, thanks to those Tory councillors, and a committee that includes new GLA candidate Daniel Thomas, it is likely that there will be only ten library buildings in the borough - and no library service, in the sense that we have known. 

Barnet Council has tweeted that there are 'new proposals to maintain 14 libraries', to be discussed at tonight's Children, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding Committee.

This is of course not a true representation of the facts.

The proposals, in their entirely, may be read here.

The proposals does not maintain libraries, but rather retain 14 buildings, hollowed out buildings, handed over to Capita, in which only a nominal library service will be available, to some extent, but relying on the use of volunteers - and a controversial plan to install 'open library' technology in place of staff. 

Libraries will be mercilessly shrunk in size, paying guests within their own homes, the service becoming, as we are told 'a user of the physical building', reduced into a travesty of their former selves, and the freed up space, we are informed, to be relied on for income generation, from letting to as yet unidentified tenants.

Hidden away in the report is an admission that there will be some 'temporary' closures of libraries, in the process of converting them into part time libraries, and full time council buildings up for rent. 

Mrs Angry predicts, with a fair amount of confidence, that some will close, perhaps never to open again, as the mythical volunteer teams intended to take on the jobs of qualified, professional librarians and staff fail to appear, or other 'unforeseen' problems occur. 

Remember the fate of Totteridge Library, the library that so many Tory councillors tried to protect from closure? The very reason, in fact - irony of ironies - that Tory leader Richard Cornelius began his political career (if that is what one must call it)?

This report thinks that revenue of more than £546,000 can be made from pimping out our library buildings in this way: leaving a token area of shelving, and minimal resources, whilst creating space for rental - but to whom, and on what basis, is such massive financial dependence to be invested? We do not know. Because of course it is utter nonsense.

The open libraries will not only mean half of the librarians and staff members losing their jobs, but that libraries, for much of the time, will have NO STAFF at all present in the building, and residents will have to let themselves into the facility they want to call a library, using a pin number.

No, that is not a joke.

If, as is certain, not enough volunteers are found to run four of the libraries, then those libraries will be abandoned, and shut permanently.

Where to start? 

At the very beginning, Mrs Angry. At the very beginning - and the tale of Friern Barnet Library, the library that wouldn't lie down and die, that refused to close, despite being shut, and put up for sale by Tory councillors.

If you recall, the library was taken over by Occupy, who, in partnership with local residents and campaigners, re-opened the building, filled it with donated books, and obliged the Tories, in the end, to acknowledge defeat, and recognise the new enterprise as a community library.

This was in many ways a triumph for residents and campaigners, and a humiliation for the Tory council, and proof of the power of direct action - but in the long term, of course, as Mrs Angry warned, the willingness of some campaigners to accept the designation of a 'Community' library, rather than see the branch brought back to the council's own public network, created a dangerous precedent, and a template for further Tory assault on our once magnificent library service.

And here we are, in 2015, presented with the ultimate assault: the complete destruction of the service, under the guise of necessity, but really an ideologically driven policy for the Barnet Tories, obsessed as they are with the mantra - private sector good, public sector bad

Powered by the carefully orchestrated 'guidance' of the senior management team, and made mad by the actions of the leech like consultants who feast off the body of the public sector, promoting more and more outsourcing of our local services, until they are sucked dry - our Tory councillors are set on privatising as much of the council's function as possible. 

They present the need for such wholescale privatisation as the consequence of austerity, but in truth this obsession was imbedded in their policies long before the current economic 'crisis' - it was seeded there by the 'easycouncil' model, years ago, a half baked philosophy that appeals to their small time, neo Thatcherite vision, and also eases the burden of responsibility from them, into the eager hands of the outsourcerers. 

An ideologically driven programme has been pushed through, more latterly, by the pretext of making 'savings': savings for which there is no real evidence, and how could there be, in a pair of contracts with Capita for which we have handed over our services for them to make profit, at our expense?  And indeed while the Tory council has continued to throw many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money away on, for example, free land for private developers, the panicked purchase of a £13 million depot - an approval based on inaccurate information supplied by senior officers - and other misjudgements, such as ... cutting council tax, as a pre election 'gesture'?

Once returned to power, as predicted, our Tory adminstration set about drawing up plans to cut and privatise even more services: including libraries.

Barnet Library service had already been subject, at the hands of the Tories, to years of slow death by a thousand cuts, by a cull on qualified staff; a policy of underinvestment: virtually halving the spend on books, dvds etc between 2005/6 and 2011/12 - and a lack of promotion: the traditional way of running down a service so as to make it ripe for destruction, or privatisation, of course.

Last year, plans were published setting out a number of equally awful options for cutting the library budget, in order to make £2.85 million: a small enough sum, by comparison with the often profligate expenditure on consultants and agency staff, for example, but representing a massive 60% of the library budget, from a service which has always been recognised as delivering value for money, at a high standard. Clearly this punitive proposal was about more than budget savings, and meant to be a fatal blow to yet another public, in house service.

But these plans represented a serious political miscalculation, and one which was to cause the three sitting Tory MPs much fear, in the run up to the General Election, being overwhelmed by protest from normally naturally conservative residents, outraged at the threat to the local public library service.

The idea of a public library, and its significance in terms of cultural or social value, is something utterly alien to the sensibilities of the Tory administration in Broken Barnet. 

Almost none of the Tory members use libraries, or indeed, have any pretensions to any degree of intellectual ability, let alone a love of reading. And the wider range of needs that a modern library provides, of access to IT, to information, as a focus for the community, and a resource for those groups more likely to be excluded from society's mainstream, are matters of little or no interest to them. 

Where is the value in a library building, except as a potential for development, and capital profit? Why give ordinary people the means to educate themselves, without charge, to enjoy reading, without buying a book? To think, and perhaps challenge the status quo, rather than accept the injustice and inequality of their lives?

The proposals now created which would destroy our library service were put out to consultation -  the 'nonsultation' of last year, in which, and in the loudest, clearest voice possible, residents rejected the plans, demanding that the council leave libraries as they are, and find the money they claim to need elsewhere.

Consultation, of course, Barnet Council learned, the hard way, is something you ignore, at your peril.

The Judicial Review of One Barnet, the last incarnation of 'easycouncil', would have been successful, if not judged to be out of time: successful because of serious failures in the statutory requirement regarding consultation.

Barnet has therefore tried awfully hard to look as if it has followed the rules, and consulted its residents, informing them fully of the proposals, and asking their opinion.

They don't give a flying fuck what that opinion is, of course, and are gambling that the process of consultation is in itself enough to ward off any legal challenge.

Hmm. I don't think so, Tory councillors, and senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. 

And I speak as someone who, probably unlike the majority of lazy Tory councillors, if not the senior officers, has read all of the reports. In detail. And taken part in a previous JR.

Oh dear. 

So many slip ups.

The best, most thorough rebuttal of the Tory cuts proposals is here, in the detailed report commissioned by Unison: please take the time to read it.

Barnet's report admits that the consultation has only been used to 'inform' a final decision, on what they charmingly insist on calling the future shape (hello, that rings a bell) of the, please excuse me, the 'library offer'. 

In other words, they have followed the duty to consult, ignored the overwhelmingly negative response to their shabby little plans, and crafted a set of proposals in the pretence that by retaining the library buildings, whilst destroying the service, they are somehow doing what was asked by the residents and taxpayers of this borough.

The report is curiously coy about what is referred to as 'Phase Three', and the decision over the future provider of the service. 

An in-house option, of course, for service provision, based on the previous history of outsourcing in Barnet, is unlikely seriously to be considered; that is to say, the option to retain our library service run by Barnet Council, as it is. 

It will be palmed off to an outside agency of some sort - yes, privatised. But there is no firm information on this point, which leads us to wonder how on earth the other recommendations can be formulated, with any certainty. 

Except of course the proposals are wincingly short on certainty, and almost entirely dependent on convenient 'assumptions'. Assumptions not supported by any reliable evidence - and in some cases on faux 'evidence'  - artificial, or 'modelled' data.

Let us look at some of the detail in the report. 

The response from residents who completed the questionnaires is, without question, furiously against the proposed 'options' put forward by the council. Yet so much more weight is given to the mysterious 'panellists' - Barnet's own tame Citizens' Panel, whose membership we have little knowledge of, but is clearly preferred to the opinions of those who actually use the libraries. 

Barnet claims the Citizens' Panel consists of randomly chosen residents, but of course even if this is true, we do not hear how many are then filtered, and removed from the panel - like Mrs Angry herself - wonder why?

Our 14 libraries have been divided up into three groups: 

Core libraries: mostly losing half their space, to commercial activities -

Burnt Oak
East Finchley
Golders Green
North Finchley

Core Plus Libraries: the favoured few, two of them not built yet: 

Chipping Barnet
Church End
Grahame Park

Partnership libraries: to be run by 'volunteers' - and therefore likely to close, or never to open:

Childs Hill
East Barnet
Mill Hill
South Friern

Staffed opening hours, provided by a team of employees that will be halved in size, will be savagely reduced from 634.5 to 188: in some cases, libraries will only have 15 hours staffed opening hours a week, other volunteer assisted opening only.

Very interestingly, just by coincidence, the libraries worst affected are almost exclusively in opposition wards, or marginal wards, or where tame Tory councillors are least likely to kick up a fuss about the cuts.

The Tories think that because this emasculated 'service' will take place in former library buildings, residents can be fooled into thinking they have 'maintained' the service. 

This is completely untrue. Furthermore the new arrangements will, it is arguable, place the authority into question as regards its requirement, under the  Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964, to provide a service that is both 'comprehensive and efficient', accessible to all residents, using 'reasonable means'.

The service that will be provided in Barnet Libraries in the future, if these proposals are approved, will rely on the use of volunteers: around seventy, we understand, would be needed permanently to staff the four 'partnership' branches.

The report admits, however, that currently the service has only 38 volunteers - who are bound to be only part time, and probably work very few hours a week. This number of 38 should be compared to the average of 193, which is the CIPFA benchmark, and clearly indicates the unlikely prospect of the four libraries they claim can be run by full time volunteer staff ever actually taking off, or remaining as viable ventures.

Goodbye then, to Childs Hill, East Barnet, South Friern and Mill Hill libraries. 

Extraordinary, is it not, that our Tory councillors, who only five years ago, whilst lecturing us on the need for austerity and cuts in services, voted themselves a big fat increase in their allowances, feel no remorse about taking public funding for what used to be seen as civic duty, an unpaid voluntary role, yet expect others to work for free in the new library system, forcing qualifed librarians to face a future of unemployment, and loss of income.

The other crucial factor in these proposals is the reliance on something few people in this country know about: the idea of 'open' libraries. 

This means libraries without staff, accessible only by smartcard, or pin number entry systems. Or, as one reader put it - robot libraries. At the consultation meetings, we were consoled with the prospect of a holographic librarian, or a remote librarian on a screen, as well as (non live streamed) CCTV, to record any muggings, assaults, or any other form of anti-social behaviour.

Children under sixteen years old will not be allowed in the open libraries, despite the fact that at the last census, 0-14 year olds accounted for 21% of the borough's population, and clearly the impact of loss of access to books, IT and studying space will fall heaviest on the most deprived and dependent children.

Banned now, from open libraries - oh, unless they are accompanied by a parent, teacher, or 'adult friend'. Who will check that the companion of any child is a parent, teacher, or 'adult friend'?  

Older children who may have wished to come to the library and study, or carry out research, with the guidance of a qualified librarian? They are told to stay at home, and use a digital library. 

And in the new open, unstaffed libraries: will elderly and disabled people, and lone women, be safe, feel safe, in such an environment?

The promotion of open libraries has been based on assurances in the report and elsewhere that, as it states in Section 4, Item 4.2.6 - 

"This approach is standard for public libraries in Scandinavia ..."

Erm ... well, except that ... it is not, as far as Mrs Angry can see, and she has made enquiries of various library professionals with knowledge in this area, to try to clarify the point.

It is true to say that open libraries have been used in one country in Scandinavia, ie Denmark, but even there it is inaccurate to say it is a standard approach, or in a context comparable to the UK, let alone an urban London borough.

Of 500 libraries in Denmark, perhaps less than 200 work on the open system: and they are largely in rural areas; the few that are in urban settings are in places with low population and levels of crime that contrast sharply with London.

Nowhere directly comparable to this borough has run an open library system, and the one pilot scheme which has been tried, to much fanfare, but with little analysis, has only been in place since the end of June: even this report agrees there has not been time enough to evaluate the system, which only generates around 80 users a week.

Apart from the safety and safeguarding aspects of this scheme, the absence of trained staff on site to help residents and provide any sort of real library service is simply unacceptable, and the consultation made it absolutely clear that no one wants to see this imposed, yet they have ignored the outcome and gone further, in fact, than most expected, in the extent to which they are determined to force through the open policy.

Of course this new system, and other radical changes, will have the greatest impact on protected groups covered, in theory, by the Equalities Act. Barnet has a duty to consider this impact, but here in fact, is the greatest weakness in their report. 

An admission that there is no data held by libraries regarding the demographic characteristics of users. 

They have therefore resorted to a reliance on 'modelled data', or, as we would call it, more precisely, in the context of Broken Barnet: 'made up data'. 

The true impact, therefore, on groups to which the Equalities Act applies, residents who are affected by age, disability, sex, or sexual orientation, gender reassignment, race, religion, belief, unemployment, deprivation, and even students in further education: all of their requirements, in the creation of the library proposals, have been based on ... guesswork.

As an example, one might consider what the report has to say about the impact on LGB residents. No, not LGBT: no T, even. The library service, we learn, does not collect data on sexual orientation, or transgender status, but ... we are told, has a few books that are 'tailored' to LGB people, whatever that means. 

Talking to Nicola Field, (above) from 'Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, as featured in the film 'Pride', recently, who came to join us on the children's March for Libraries, she emphasised strongly how important libraries were to the LGBT community, a place where they felt safe, and able discreetly to access the information and support they need, especially as young adults, exploring their sexuality. 

But how would we know, in Barnet, to what extent those needs should influence the library proposals? What sort of impact will the cuts have? They have failed to assess this and other needs with any accuracy, or care.

And what of elderly residents, in an ageing population, who are least likely to be able to use new technology, or feel safe in an unstaffed environment? Those surveyed made it clear they did not want the changes proposed, but have been ignored. Their needs too, have not been considered in any real depth, or with evidence backed assessment.

Just think of this most fundamental part of the proposals, the effect of withdrawing services, and staff, and accessible libraries, from anyone from these groups: the immeasurable impact in terms of the increase in exclusion and social isolation, the loss of supportive relationships between vulnerable users and staff members, the increase in loneliness, and despair, for those for whom a visit to the library might be their only point of contact in the day. 

The comments contained within the group, from library users of all ages and backgrounds dependent on their local library, again and again praise the kindness, patience, dedication and of course professionalism of staff who help elderly people learn to use computers, children to find books suitable for their interests, or job seekers to search for work, or refugees to improve their language skills, or vulnerable residents to find the right support for their needs.

In terms of accessibility, the blithe dismissal of concerns with an assurance that no journey by public transport to any library will be more than half an hour is meaningless, on close inspection. 

Barnet is relying on the thirty minute limit, as this was central to the finding of a legal challenge to Lincolnshire Libraries' proposals for their own service.

But what might be reliably claimed as a thirty minute journey in rural Lincolnshire is hardly comparable to travel time in London, especially when so optimistically measured by Tfl, and as the report admits, not taking into account the impact of local issues such as the likeliness of delays, diversions, crowding etc.

And of course the impact of travel on protected groups has not been accurately measured.

How will the unemployed, facing brutal sanctions, should they fail to print out evidence of their job seeking, afford to travel around the borough, in search of a library with facilities and librarians to help them?

How will school pupils whose families cannot afford a home computer do their homework, when they are not allowed to enter their nearest, unstaffed library? 

The final madness, in these proposals, is that in order to 'save' £2.85 million, your Tory councillors are about to sanction capital expenditure of more than £6 million. Yes, you read that right: £6 million.

And yes again: it seems they can find the capital necessary to destroy a vital service, but not to maintain it. In fact it is quite reasonable to conclude that they are yet again, as they did with Hendon Crematorium, spending capital money, taxpayers' money, in the course of a process of privatisation, in order to make that service, or those assets, more appealing to potential contractors.

This is the 'library offer', then: an offer, they hope, that you cannot refuse. 

Because they think they have it all stitched up, don't they? 

They are wrong.

The threat to libraries was the cause, in the run up to the general election, of incalculable damage to the three local Tory candidates, who were inundated by complaints from residents - middle class, natural Tory voters, enraged by the proposals.

We are now in the run up to another election, here in London: for the GLA, and the Mayor. The Tory candidate, Daniel Thomas, is a member of the library committee that sits tonight, and is expected to approve these awful recommendations. 

The last GLA election was won in Barnet and Camden by Labour, with the help of a mass movement to remove former Tory AM Brian Coleman from his seat. This time round, no doubt local Tories fondly imagine they can regain their loss. 

If the library proposals are approved tonight, however, they will have sealed their own fate, and given a gift to the Labour campaign, as this issue, of all issues, will pursue them into the polling stations and remind every voter, especially the middle class voter on whose loyalty they depend, to put their crosses elsewhere on the paper, or even not vote at all. 

But that is in the future. 

Tonight there will be a demonstration, from 6.30 onwards, outside the Town Hall in the Burroughs, NW4: please come along and add your voice to the protest against the destruction of your library service.

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