Wednesday 4 March 2020

Saving Barnet Libraries: the last battle

The 'refurbishment' of Barnet libraries ... remember that? 

This was the interesting claim that was written on banners and hung outside library buildings across the borough, two weeks before the general election of 2017, trying to persuade local voters that nothing was happening to this vital community service, other than a few new carpets and a change in upholstery. In one case, seen below, at North Finchley, the banner was hung outside a library being used as a polling station, the paint hardly dry after its beautiful, purpose built children's library had been hollowed out and oh: 'refurbished' - to no purpose whatsoever.

North Finchley library on polling day, 2017

What was happening, in truth, was that Barnet's Tory councillors were spending £14 million on hacking the library service to pieces: sacking staff, chucking out books by the skipload, carving up the library buildings, so as to empty most of the space of any library function, and then installing 'open access' equipment, so that staffed library hours were reduced to a nominal level of coverage. Unaccompanied children under 16 were banned from entry, and study space cut back to a fraction of the former provision.

And for what reason? Ostensibly to 'save money'. Yes: spending £14 million to ... make savings. 

The only 'savings' that emerged from this were in terms of staffing costs: paying off the staff who were sacked. Except: oh dear, as predicted, the risks to library users of unstaffed libraries, as campaigners against the cuts warned, meant that the council ended up paying a fortune every month on security guards - and has done ever since.

The story given that the massive reduction in library space within the former library buildings was so as to generate income from commercial renting soon turned out to be ... just that: a story. 

There never was any serious intention to let the space in this way, as was admitted at the time of nonsultation: senior officers admitted they had done no market testing, and said it didn't really matter. 

Golders Green children's library, after Barnet Tories destroyed it - and above right, the replacement they shoved into the adult library.

It didn't matter, because the long term plan, as many believe, is merely to run the service down to the point where the authority and Capita can find a reason to divest the council of more assets, and sell some of the buildings for development, on the basis of insufficient footfall as a library.

The result, however, is that the income which was part of the original business plan has not materialised, and as things stand, the £14 million 'investment' in the 'refurbishment' of the service will see no proportionate return.

In short, the libraries' fiasco, even if judged only on its financial case, has been a failure. This is the only outcome which will worry some Barnet Tories: but it is not the only, or the most important, consequence, of course. 

Having written to the government minister responsible for libraries to complain about the devastating cuts to our library service, Save Barnet Libraries campaigners pushed for a review of the impact of these cuts, and a report by an independent company of consultants 'Activist Group" has now been published. 

Save Barnet Libraries campaigners, with letters in support of East Finchley library, by local children.

Tomorrow (Thursday 5th March) the report, which you can read here, will be considered by the Community Leadership and Libraries committee (you can see that Barnet Tories have so little interest in the library service they have attached it randomly, as an afterthought, to this committee, rather than allow it, as was once the case, its own committee, or include it, as it should be, with education and leisure).

What does the report say?

It says that everything we as residents and campaigners said would happen, has happened. 

That the current plan for libraries does not deliver the expectations of the council's own stated local policies.

That even if you accept that their intentions in pursuing the cuts were valid, their objectives have not been met, and their strategy has failed to deliver the results they demanded. 

That "the reduction in staffed opening hours has gone too far ..." 

That: "Students no longer have sufficient study space at many branches ..."

It is noted that reduction in book stock can have a detrimental impact on user visits (deliberately so, of course, in Barnet) - although the report perhaps does not fully explore the particularly poor provision of stock for children, especially at libraries such as Hendon, and Golders Green. (see pics below)

Library users who were surveyed, moreover, referred to the range of books in their top priorities for improvement: first priority, unsurprisingly, is the availability of staff:

The impact on children and young people, especially those from backgrounds of social deprivation is made clear in this report:

Prosperity, child poverty and attainment


The borough is relatively prosperous and has high levels of educational attainment. However, Barnet contains pockets of deprivation which are concentrated, but not exclusively, in the West of the borough.

This is reflected in turn by the third of children who live in poverty. These inequalities are reflected in educational attainment. The implications for the library strategy are:

• The relative prosperity of the borough means that a substantial proportion of the borough may choose not to borrow books or use free computer terminals.
• While generally prosperous, there are areas with high levels of deprivation which need adequate resources.
• Study spaces for young people are particularly important for those living in the most deprived areas.
• Self-service opening currently excludes, and possibly disadvantages, young people below the age of 15 from accessing quiet study areas.

The report highlights one crucial aspect of the failed 'transformation' of the library service: Barnet was one of the first authorities to implement the so called 'open access', unstaffed libraries - but they tried to use the technology in a way that no one else had used it: in order to reduce staffed hours. This is why it has been such a disaster, and has seen the permanent deployment and high cost of security staff. The adoption of open access libraries, incidentally, was based on a lie - reports to committee claiming that such libraries were 'standard' use in 'Scandinavia'. They weren't, and the few that were in existence were used in a completely different context.

Security staff cannot replace the removal of trained library staff, nor can the Big Brother eye of CCTV, which is supposed to monitor these spaces in lieu of staff on the ground. 

The report takes up the issue of 'volunteers': Barnet Tory councillors, some of whom expect generous allowances for little or no work by themselves (for example in the case of one very well paid Chair whose committee did not meet for more than seven months), in their eagerness to make residents work for free - doing work that their council tax has already paid for - thought that they could sack their own trained library staff, and replace them, if necessary, with 'volunteers'. 

The report points out that this did not happen. It didn't happen, as we warned it would not, (and is touched upon in the report) because by and large people do not want to take away the livelihoods of library workers and anyway are not capable of doing the work of professional librarians or trained library staff. 

There is a fundamental failure to grasp, both in the culture of the Barnet Tory 'vision' for public services, and to some extent in this report, the reason why volunteers cannot and should not be asked to run libraries. 

The idea that well meaning residents can take the place of library staff is wrong: the duties of library workers are complex, and require a wide range of skills, including management of safeguarding issues, dealing with users presenting challenging behaviour due to mental health problems, guiding users needing help with benefit or job applications, those in need of social service support - as well as an understanding of data protection issues. That is in addition to having a wide experience in IT and information provision - not just finding you an instant result on google, but finding you the right sort of answer for your needs. This level of qualification and skill is not, and should never be, demanded of volunteers in any form of service, but particularly in a work environment used by vulnerable residents and children.

Part of East Finchley library - as it was

The physical absence of library staff means that library users feel at risk, lack skilled support, and for many users at risk of social isolation, or with mental health issues, for children and elderly users, as we hear from users quoted in this report, there is every reason now not even to attempt to visit their local library, or, as the report points out, even to try to guess when it is open - or where it is.

Where it is? Yes. One important point well covered in the report is the lack of basic signage: a telling absence which reflects the fact that the council would really rather you didn't turn up and use the service. 

My local library is a good example of this: the new Church End branch does not even have a sign outside informing you that it is a library. If you didn't already know, you would never know at all. 

Why is this? 

If you look around you, you will see none of the fixtures are permanent: the space could be emptied of books and stripped back within a short time, with no structural changes. And that is because the space belongs to the development in which it is placed, given planning permission on the basis of offering us a new library we didn't need: there was one across the road - with a sign saying 'library' on the front - which simply required some ... what is the word? Refurbishment ... 

Once the new library fails to be considered to be performing adequately, it will face closure, and the lease returned to the freeholders. Other libraries face closure on the grounds of self generated decline in use - and will no doubt provide an asset ripe for sale - and yet another opportunity for development for the vultures circling what is left of our built heritage and community centres. 

The closure of libraries, in Barnet, is and always has been a very sensitive political issue: it causes alarm among Tory voters, and letters to our MPs: they don't want this, so the cuts were designed so as to leave the library buildings nominally as libraries, but effectively in a state that would make future closures less controversial. 

In terms of impact, these truly devastating cuts to the library service have caused real hardship for many dependent and vulnerable users. Their statements may be found in the report: take for example these comments on unstaffed hours, when entry is only possible with a card and pin number, and there may not even be a security guard on the premises: 

These are all issues we warned would happen - but were ignored by the Tory members and senior officers who wanted to adopt this system. 

People simply do not want libraries to be unstaffed: they don't feel safe, there is no one to ask for help, should there be a problem - but most of all, no one is available should they need advice, guidance, or complex information. 

One of the issues given particular attention is that of toilets: the removal of staff has had the consequence that branches are often left with no access at all, leaving many users, especially those who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, or with children, feeling unable to continue to visit their local libraries. 

Another of the issues probably not given as much attention as it should, but beyond the remit of this review in terms of future outcome, was the impact of such reduced access to libraries on the literacy and educational achievement of the borough's children, especially those in less advantaged families: an outcome whose that will only be seen in the years to come. 

Other forms of impact are not quantifiable: the impact in terms of loneliness and social exclusion. 

What can be measured has largely been avoided: as the report notes, libraries have been left without any system of assessing the level of use, since the cuts were implemented. Now why might that be, do you suppose?

As the report observes, all of this is so short sighted, in failing to accept how libraries can be used in a 'preventative' role, "improving people’s life chances and helping to reduce spending on health and welfare".

But then in Broken Barnet, long term gain is never seen as more useful than short term measures, or political gestures. 

So what is to be done? 

The report is quite clear. It recommends replacing lost staffing hours - at least until the day that will never come, when the mythical volunteer army is ready to take over: but most importantly of all, investing in the library service - yes, investing, not cutting, a difficult concept for Barnet Tories but one - are you keeping up, councillors? - one which in the long term will be more cost effective, in terms of its preventative role, as already noted. 

There is of course the benefit in terms of social value, but that might require some difficult thinking, for some members, being a commodity that cannot be measured, weighed, or quantified in material terms.

Tomorrow is also World Book Day, and an appropriate day in which to make a plea, by the children of the borough, to their elected representatives that evening, to secure their right to a better future, and a future for their local libraries.

One of the comments made by the consultants at Activist was in reaction to the strength of feeling among the hundreds of residents and library users they spoke to:

We have been struck by the passionate commitment shown by the people who use
Barnet’s libraries and by the staff who serve them. 

This is what is at the heart of this battle, and it has been a battle, between residents and the Tory group on Barnet council: they misjudged the extent to which what was once a beacon standard, money for value library service, matters to the people who live in this borough, and those who work in this service, and what is stands for: community, culture, heritage, education, and the joy of reading, the vital role of reading, and learning to see the world from a view point different to your own - a quality some might say is lacking in the ethos of the present council administration.

Over to you, now, councillors. 

Don't let us down.

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