“the message is loud and clear, councils need to genuinely consult”

10406962_10202785348247816_7618621984077384071_nA personal account of by Angela Montague, who is one of the core campaigners at Save Lincolnshire Libraries. She owns her own business Push Creativity in Market Rasen and is a mother to two young children. This article first appeared in the Lincolnshire Echo, 24/07/2014. 

Libraries have been hugely important to me. My mum left school at 14 with no qualifications, but she certainly had a love of books and took me to the local library every week, at the end of the road in Rosavere Avenue, Grimsby. I was in what was called the ‘remedial’ reading group at school, but because a love of reading and library visits were part of my childhood, I overcame all that, and picked up a university degree at the age of 22. I now run my own company, creating work for myself and many others. So, I have much to thank small town libraries for.

I did not use libraries for about ten years when I was in full time work, but as soon as I had my children, I went straight back to them, taking a buggy full of books out every week, and then moving on to using the library for homework. A library book written for an eight year old about a curriculum topic does the job beautifully; using the internet is a bit hit and miss. That’s my experience.

This week, my eldest daughter Ella leaves primary school. She has just this been given the Achievement Award for exceptional scores in all her SATs, especially for the reading test result where her score was described by her teacher as ‘pretty much unheard of’. This is not just because she can read big long words, but because she understands what she is reading. Libraries and their kindly staff played a huge part in this.

So, knowing how libraries matter to me, you can imagine my fury when I read of the council’s plans for the service last year. The cuts were massive, and at the heart of the plan was the sacking of around 170 people and the arm twisting of communities to volunteer to provide a library, or have no library at all. A shocking abuse of people’s good natures.

The fury escalated when I picked up the council’s Consultation Questionnaire, which gave me no means to say what I wanted to say: ‘don’t ruin the library service’. I joined a Facebook group for the campaign and saw so many like me, despairing at the cuts and a consultation designed to gag dissent and groom volunteers.

From that point on I was a committed member of the campaign, fighting for libraries and – it became more and more apparent – fighting the people in power who refused to listen.

And so it dragged on for over a year, with exhausted volunteers like me challenging a fully funded council time and time again with the ‘no’ message, only to be ignored. Petitions, marches, 900 heart-breaking comments delivered to the Prime Minister in Downing Street. Inevitably it ended up with the full judicial review in the High Court, London, granted on all counts for Lincoln resident and campaigner Simon Draper.

The two days of the hearing went better than we had hoped, with the QC for the council really struggling to make her points stand up, but we dared not ‘count any chickens’.

A week later it was back to London as judgement was handed down. Many campaigners travelled down to court but my role was back in Lincolnshire, ensuring the Twitter stream and the blog were updated as quickly as possible with the news.

I got a phone call a few minutes after the ruling from a very excited fellow campaigner Julie Harrison, stood outside the high court. She basically shouted down the phone “Angela, we won”, followed by a fairly breathless account of what the judge actually said. There were tears.

Mr Justice Collins confirmed in law what the people of Lincolnshire had said all along: the consultation was flawed and Lincolnshire County Council’s proposals were wrong as a matter of law. The decision made in December last year should be quashed.

I think I managed to get the main points on Twitter and Facebook in about a minute, and then everything went really crazy. Hundreds of re-tweets of the ruling and messages of congratulations from across the UK and worldwide.

Thanks to Twitter, our fight for libraries is known well beyond the shire, and the campaign account (@savelincslibraries) was congratulated on the high court win by children’s laureates Malorie Blackman and Michael Rosen, as well as authors like Ian Ranking and India Knight, celebrities like Minnie Driver, Johnnie Vegas and Mary Beard and big organisations like The Library Campaign and National Libraries Day. It is just amazing to be at the centre of so much celebration, and the congratulations are still coming in.

So the message is loud and clear, councils need to genuinely consult and Lincolnshire County Council failed to do this. You’d think common sense and decency would stop councillors attempting such things, but apparently not, a high court judge is required.

The nine members of the council executive who tried to bulldozer this plan through should now apologise to the 23000 people who signed the petition against it. They should also say sorry to the people they have sacked – despite the impending judicial review – and for the stress they have caused so many who work in the service. Their behaviour, for over a year now, shows no they have no respect for democracy if it gets in the way of what they want to do.

The battle now is to make the council provide a professional library service, to stop them trying spin this into anything other than what it is – humiliation in the high court – and to stop them still ruining our service by another route.

The core of a library service for me means easy access and trained staff. We are now speaking to the non-profit organisation Greenwich Leisure, who were wrongly overlooked in the consultation process, according to the judge. We’re also talking with people at The Library Campaign and Unison, to get their experienced opinions at this most crucial stage.

The passion and intelligence that has given this campaign its win against the county council comes from people who use libraries – and use them a lot. What does that tell you about the power and value of libraries? I call on the council to now cherish and nourish the library service and its staff, and recognise it can be a huge force for good in Lincolnshire.

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