An open letter from Steve Palmer, Lincolnshire Independent spokesman for Libraries County Councillor for Alford and Sutton on Sea.
I would like to explain my interpretation on what your readers in Sutton on Sea and Alford have seen about the awful decision to force volunteers to take over these two libraries alongside many others in the county to run, manage and fund or close them.
The County Council Executive made up of 10 members 9 from the Conservative party and one from the Liberal Democrats party decided this alone, not the 77 elected members but these few wielding power under Cllr Martin Hill leader of the council. So you, the electors, have been deprived of knowing how your local elected councillor would have voted on this important countywide issue. You may have seen Cllr. Hill or Cllr. Worth portfolio holder for libraries on the television announcing the plan to reduce the statutory provision from 45 libraries down to 15. This means the other libraries must be took over by volunteers as I have said earlier but also the mobile vans that go to the more rural areas are also not statutory. This means they can be got rid of or reduced at a later date without as much fuss as if they were statutory. Of course also the volunteer libraries if they fail, which many will over the next few years in fact some communities have already said we can’t do it, will not be statutory so will close and be possibly boarded up, sold off, again without so much fuss.
Cllr. Hill and Cllr. Worth have constantly told us that the Libraries must make their contribution to the cuts being forced on local councils by this government, and fair enough in my judgement, but for two things.
First the Administration led by Cllr Hill have been planning to reduce or suggesting that they reduce the Libraries to 13 or 15 since 2007 and that is on record. That is before all this austerity started and in my opinion they have used the cuts to council just as an excuse to do the dirty on Library provision purely on political policy grounds knowing without that excuse it would be political suicide.
Second even if you accept that the cut in budget is the only reason to go ahead, that Cllr. Hill and Cllr Worth say it is, then why have they refused to except that two proposals showed that they could keep the libraries professionally run within that new budget. You will have heard them say Libraries must be cut by 2 million pounds a year, it’s actually £1.73 million since the council officers could not achieve that original target, although a housewife using just a laptop and Freedom of Information and the consultation library packs did, but what’s a quarter of a million pounds between friends. Just to be transparent that housewife was my wife who has put in about 2500 hours of unpaid volunteer work on this with no benefit to her apart from her wanting the right thing for lincolnshire people and to keep people in jobs and keep a professional library service across the county. The other proposal came from GLL. Both showed the possibility of achieving the target.
So it has nothing to do with austerity and it has been showed by two separate inputs that the Library could have been kept professional and also it was not a whole council decision by all councillors at County Council and it seems to stemmed from a political motive.
It has of course also been said we don’t need libraries in this modern day and only a minority use them. It is about 17% of the population that are active users, that means regular book borrowers and does not include any other users such as those who use the people’s Internet or knit and natter or chess or any other activities in the library. It does not include visitors who ask for information, bus time tables etc. It does not include the people who are directed to the library for public health or other reasons that the government or councils use libraries heavily for. Anyway 17% is a large minority and it must be remembered that those who use our libraries are very often the poorer members of society either for monitory or rural isolation reasons.
We have heard from those councillors, notable from just the administration an “I am all right Jack attitude” especially from Cllr Worth with his off the cuff remark that everyone has two or three cars these days and another who said ” all children at school have IPads don’t they” that libraries are not so important these days. I say they are out of touch and they need to get out more in the community and smell reality on the streets of Lincolnshire sometimes it does not smell as nice as it may in the circles they are obviously moving in.
By pressing through with these proposals on our libraries it is going to cause a tiered postcode lottery of Library provision. Is it accidental that they have renamed the libraries as Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 and Tier 1 and 2 only are statutory but we all have to pay equally in our council tax for them whether we can get to them or not?
Some will say that I am being just political and in a small p way I am but it has to be stated that it must be realised this issue has done a very rare thing. It united the right wing Ukip and Left Wing Labour as well as Lincolnshire Independents against these plans.
I am very worried not only about the issue of Libraries but the bigger issue of democracy in Lincolnshire. We seem to have the situation where we elect every four years in a democratic way then the next four years are spent in a dictatorship. If you have been following this over the last two years you will have seen this in action. June 2013 scrutiny voted to not put forward the consultation on library changes, Executive ignored and overruled this. The consultation showed no support at all for the plans but this was effectively ignored.
In December 13 the Executive of 9 members pushed through the proposal which led to a legal challenge called a Judicial Review brought by a member of the public backed by Save Lincolnshire Libraries and in spirit by the thousands who signed petitions (1,800 in Sutton on Sea) hundreds who marched in Lincoln plus demonstrations at many libraries across the county. The High Court Judge found in favour of the people and found all costs to be paid by the council and sent them to think again after quashing the decision. So they put out another smaller consultation again no support for the proposal.
In December 14 at full council the Executive leader and leader of the council pushed through a last minute change to the constitution of the council, even though a working group had not put it in their recommendation, to change the rules so that a petition of more than 3,500 signatures no longer sparks a debate in full council involving all councillors.
In January this year a scrutiny committee met again to look at the 303 page report and as you expect this was not a quick rubber stamping exercise but members of the ruling administration stopped the scrutiny using Rules of Debate, first time I have ever seen this done, before members had finished asking officers for clarification or challenging the report. The chairman is also a member of the ruling administration. I have made an official complaint.
Last week the Executive, as expected, decided to go down the same plan for libraries again. Totally ignoring the opposition from the people, the alternatives, and the opposition councillors of both left and right wing political opinions and following in my opinion a pre decided route which has been the subject of so much opposition and makes well over one hundred people redundant.
Very interestingly as I write this a report another report has come out from the Centre for Public Scrutiny and it has called for a full national review of the effectiveness of local scrutiny. They have made recommendations, these are
1. Leaders should recognise and support the value of effective challenge in helping them improve what they do.
2. Councils should review their own member governance in light of the Francis and Jay reports.
3. Councils should seriously consider how chairs of meetings of scrutiny are chosen and whether they always get the most effective people for this important role in terms of skill, independence and credibility.
4. Regulators and auditors should work with CfPS and others to raise the profile with scrutiny members to ensure members know how to raise concerns about governance and service performance.
5. Scrutiny and challenge to decision makers should be informed by the views and experiences of service users and members of the public and members should ensure that when considering performance they are not solely relying on the views of officers to inform judgements.
6. The impact of resource reductions must be included in any national review of the effectiveness of scrutiny and governance at local level.
One of the concerns of Jessica Crowe outgoing Executive Director of the CfPS is a political culture of in a small minority of councils which seeks to control and limit its (scrutiny) effectiveness…… It is weak leaders who seek to control and limit scrutiny. Confident leaders can face effective challenge and recognise the value it adds to their decision making and efforts to improve services. Transparent scrutiny is a way of building consensus and engaging communities in those decisions. Do you feel engaged in this decision on Libraries?
My conclusion is that this whole debacle over the future of our library service proves the Lincolnshire Independents point of view, National Party Politics get in the way of the best decisions for local people. Keep National Party Politics for National decisions in Westminster.
Lincolnshire Independent spokesman for Libraries County Councillor for Alford and Sutton on Sea.