Consultation or Con?

The people behind the Save Lincolnshire Libraries Campaign report that they are delighted with the outcome of the consultation into the proposed cuts to the library service in Lincolnshire.

The report (by Sheffield Hallam University) now makes it a matter of public record that 23,000 people in Lincolnshire signed various petitions against the cuts (1) ; almost certainly the largest petition figure of its kind in the UK since the austerity programme began, by a sizeable margin. Campaigners are seeing this as a major achievement, especially set against the figure of only 9,757 people turning out for the nine Executive Members in the 2013 county election. (2)

“In other words,” commented campaigner and author William Hussey, “over 13,000 more people signed the petition rejecting the council’s proposals than voted for the entire executive body combined. The mandate for those rejecting cuts is therefore stronger than that of the councillors deciding the issue and their democratically stronger voices must be heard.”

Campaigners have sought a national opinion on the achievements of the Lincolnshire petition from a leading name when it comes to library news, Ian Anstice, who catalogues all UK public library news and articles on a daily basis in his website Public Library News ( Mr Anstice told Lincolnshire campaigners: “I have been studying library protests since the start of the austerity programme and this is by far the largest petition I have ever seen. The people of Lincolnshire have spoken loud and clear about how they feel about public libraries and the only way that the councillors are not hearing them is if they are deliberately being deaf.”

Campaigner and copywriter Angela Montague also added: “The Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaigners managed to engage 23,000 people on a shoestring budget of about £1,500, which was funding from Unison to cover costs like postage and printing that individual campaigners could not be expected to pay for – especially considering that those same campaigners have already effectively paid for the council’s own, ineffective consultation through the council tax system!”

Save Lincolnshire Libraries

One of the big questions the campaigners now have is how the council’s consultation activities (covering a questionnaire and several events) only managed to engage 8,000 people, despite their massive budget of at least £50,000, with final costs not yet published

Campaigners have felt for a long time that the council consultation made it very hard for people to express their views, and now the clear difference between the ability of the campaign group and the council to engage the public raises worrying questions about how fit for purpose this consultation really was..

Specifically, Save Lincolnshire Libraries feels that the consultation strongly and repeatedly deterred people from taking part, especially those who did not agree with the proposed cuts.

Campaigner Maurice Nauta added: “The Service Level Agreement for all local libraries subject to closure has now been scrapped by the County Council as �?not fit for purpose’, yet this was sent to Parish Councils months ago with an urgency for Parish Councils to put together Expressions of Interest to run local libraries . Another fine mess. Also the Consultation Institute, which is considering whether or not to endorse the County Council’s Consultation process, appears to have thought it was a satisfactory process to go ahead with, despite it being of limited scope.”

Campaigner and independent councillor Steve Palmer commented: “Out of 30,000 paper surveys that went out 16% were returned. They were placed in limited locations, 26,000 went to Libraries, 2,500 to schools, 1,500 to job centres and 500 to CAB … I know, this does not add up! Compare that to the consultation survey of the County News asking people’s views on the new look of the newsletter. This publication go to every home in the county, delivered by Royal Mail so approximately 323,000 addresses. Only 800 responded to this, even with a bribe of a prize of £50 shopping vouchers so that’s a 0.25% response. So Nick Worth should be delighted with the response to the library consultation but as the teacher said, ‘could have done better’.”

“It certainly looks like this library consultation was engineered to fail,” added campaigner William Hussey, “Either that or it was put together by people who are wholly incompetent.”

So the campaign group now asks the council to reassure them that the consultation did genuinely set out to engage all the people of Lincolnshire, and make best use of taxpayers’ £50, 000, by answering these fundamental questions:

Who planned the consultation and who signed off those plans?
Why didn’t the consultation use the existing email database of thousands of library users to invite people to take part?
Why wasn’t a letter and questionnaire inserted into the County News, which goes to every county home?
Why wasn’t the plan clearly presented in every library, with posters listing libraries and mobile stops facing closure?
The questionnaire was widely reported to be confusing and background papers difficult to track down. With so much money available for designing it, why did it fail on this fundamental level?
Why were so many consultation events held in the daytime, excluding working people?
Why were consultation events held in towns where the library was not under threat? For example the most convenient meeting for North Hykeham & Birchwood libraries and the many villages and communities they serve was at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln in an evening. Public transport links to uphill Lincoln from North Hykeham are challenging at the best of times for non-drivers, and even more so in the evenings. The report by Sheffield Hallam University mentioned that minority groups (the elderly etc.) would be disproportionately affected by the cuts, which only makes this point more salient.
At the consultation meetings, why was the majority of the time taken up with a presentation on the plans, leaving very little time for the public to take part in the consultation, i.e. to be consulted?
Why did people have to register to attend the consultation meetings? A public meeting about a public service should be completely open.
Why consult in the Summer holidays when many people are away and schools (children are key library users) could not take part as a group?
Why publicise the CoOp’s offer halfway through the consultation? This confused people at best, and led some people to believe their libraries were safe, thus demotivating them from taking part in any campaign, or consultation activities.
Why run an �?expression of interest’ campaign alongside the consultation when (as quoted by Cllr Nick Worth in the media on numerous occasions) no decisions had at that stage been made, other than to make people panic and feel that if they protested at their library closure they would miss the opportunity to save it?
Finally, why did the questionnaire not give the option for �?no change’ to the library service, a view 23,000 people in Lincolnshire clearly hold? Could this be why many did not bother to complete it as their views were not accounted for?
Nick Worth (executive member for libraries and Lincolnshire County Council) quoted in The Lincolnite
source: The Lincolnite

Sources for Figures

1 Sheffield Hallam Report:

2 Election Results:].

Press Links

Lincolnshire Echo – Lincolnshire Libraries Consultation Slammed as ‘Waste of Time’

Lincolnite – Lincolnshire people strongly opposed to library cuts, survey finds

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