By Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaigner Angela Montague
I am one of the people at the heart of the Save Lincolnshire Libraries campaign. Martin Hill has now written an open letter (reproduced at the end of this page) attacking me and other campaigners, claiming our actions are political and unnecessary. I must now make it clear I have several motivations for opposing Mr Hill’s plan. None of them are political, and people can judge for themselves if my concerns are well founded.
I am a mother of two. Libraries have allowed me to better my life and it has been a delight to watch libraries and the staff within them work the same magic on my young children.
I am also a business owner. Libraries have contributed the knowledge and intelligence that powers my business, which provides work for me and other people. I believe that a strong and successful enterprise needs certain foundations: people selected on the basis of skills and experience, contracts of employment, ongoing training, and financial rewards to keep people motivated (and frankly most people in this world need a wage). Any enterprise that does not have these foundations in place is relying far too much on luck, and Martin Hill’s plan to replace libraries with around 30 volunteer community hubs is doing just that.
I was also one of the directors on Market Rasen’s Portas Pilot high street regeneration scheme (we were one of 12 towns selected in the UK by central gov, from 371 bids). I can say with absolute certainty that finding enough good volunteers with enough time to spare in a rural location was an Achilles Heel. The volunteer board I was a part of soon became exhausted. Support from additional volunteers for our initiatives was patchy and required much more management than anticipated. Our fall-back position was employed management resource – paid staff. So I have direct experience of volunteer initiatives, and their limitations, behind my opposition to this plan.
I can also say from my conversations with national library campaigners that there is no in-depth research in the UK into volunteer libraries to confirm they are sustainable, with much anecdotal evidence saying they are not.
So, my stance is this: Martin Hill’s plan to close libraries and replace them with volunteer community hubs takes a huge risk with a greatly loved service that is vital to many, especially children, the elderly and unemployed. He has ignored massive and sustained opposition. He was shown how an efficient service provider could make all the cuts he wanted while keeping all the libraries open and fully staffed, and he has ignored that offer too.
For these many reasons I have campaigned against Mr Hill’s plan. I have no need to add political ones to the list. I am not a Labour councillor or a member of the Labour party. My vote has gone to three different parties in my time as I vote for the least annoying candidate; this is not always easy.
If you want to really understand the people supporting this campaign, you must read the 900 comments on our website from those who signed our online petition (www.savelincslibraries.org.uk/nine-hundred-comments/). If you can get through that page without becoming tearful, you have a heart of stone. This is just a snapshot of the tens of thousands of people who support the campaign: good citizens of Lincolnshire who pay their taxes and want a secure library service in return. These are the people Martin Hill is now putting the boot into. Mr Hill’s obsession with other councillors should not be allowed to cover up the massive support this grass roots campaign has gathered.
Sheffield Hallum University (who conducted the first consultation) made this comment about the response from Lincolnshire people: “In over a decade of research work the analysis team at SHU had not experienced any survey (on any topic) generating such a high volume of qualitative data / written comments. In excess of 21,300 comments (779 A4 pages) were read, coded and analysed.” And I challenge Martin Hill to find one comment among the 21,300 that supports his plan.
This SHU report also records 23,000 as signing petitions against the plan. Save Lincolnshire Libraries have recorded support from world famous authors and celebrities, highly respected organisations like The Library Campaign and councillors and MPs of all parties including many high profile Conservatives, who do not want to be associated with Cllr Hill’s library plan. Perhaps they can see the iceberg dead ahead, as I do?
To say Save Lincolnshire Libraries cannot be distinguished from The Labour Party is preposterous. Labour councillors are involved in the campaign but that is their job, they have a duty to be The Opposition.
Any comment by Mr Hill on the matter of wasting taxpayers money is him protesting about the public purse being used to reveal that he and his fellow executives acted unlawfully, the reason they lost the 2014 Judicial Review on two counts.
And what recourse did people have but to take this to the highest court? The people of Lincolnshire do not like being dictated to (God bless them) and Martin Hill’s first unlawful consultation did just that. If he had let people truly have their say on the future of the library service they are paying for, the outcome would have been so different. If he had got round the table with campaigners (the offer was made many times) he could also have avoided this costly battle.
It is wholly inaccurate for Mr Hill to claim his decision has now been vindicated by the high court in his letter, rushed out before the judge has made her reasoning known, for goodness sake. Mr Hill knows full well the judge can only rule if the process which underpinned the decision was legal, not judge the political decision itself. The Court had no jurisdiction over the rights or wrongs of the service changes contemplated, so these played no part in Mrs Justice McGowan’s deliberations. Her judgment related only to matters of procedure, rather than to the substantive issue of whether there is evidence of a breach by the council of the Section 7 duty under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, etc. It is the Secretary of State who bears responsibility for deciding whether the changes contemplated by the council comply with legislation; no-one else, and campaigners are patiently awaiting a reply from the him in this matter.
And of course, as the Judge in the 2014 Judicial Review noted, voters can judge how their councillors acted on this matter at the ballot box soon enough.
Martin Hill also says he wants to thank volunteers. In reality many of the main players in this campaign are the people who are volunteering to take on his community hubs (but with great reluctance and as a last resort, of course) so Mr Hill has both attacked and thanked the same people with this comment.
Martin Hill also thanks library staff in his open letter. Because of their contacts of employment (such helpful things, aren’t they?) staff cannot say what they think of being clutched to Martin Hill’s bosom in this way, or of the campaign. But in reality the nub of Mr Hill’s library plan is: sack staff, replace with volunteers. And I have received many private messages of support and thanks from staff and their families for the actions of Save Lincolnshire Libraries in attempting to save their jobs and ensure a sustainable service for users.
So it now looks likely that 30 libraries will close and Martin Hill’s community hubs are going to replace them. His plan now sits before the ultimate judge: time. I hope the hubs thrive for the sake of the volunteers and the communities, and by ‘thrive’ I mean all of them providing years of dedicated service, not just those in wealthier areas and not just for a honeymoon period. That is the standard set by the library service they supplant. But if they do not thrive, I urge people to place no blame on the volunteers but look to the people that bulldozed the plan through, Martin Hill and the nine others on the council executive.
And finally, who is monitoring the progress of the hubs, so everyone knows the outcome and lessons can be learnt? It is now vital that other UK councils know how Martin Hill’s plan works in reality, so they do not blindly follow the same path.
Martin Hill’s open letter
From: News [mailto:News@lincolnshire.gov.uk]
Sent: 29 July 2015 10:00
Subject: Letter from the Leader of Lincolnshire County Council, Cllr Martin Hill
I am very pleased to hear the good news that the county council’s decision to modernise the library service, encourage volunteering and save money has been vindicated in the High Court.
The unnecessary and politically-inspired legal challenge has been dismissed on all grounds.
What is disappointing is that over £350k of taxpayers’ money has been wasted, voluntary groups frustrated and at least one library lost as a result of this action.
We have also been forced to put the service out to tender.
Our opponents have done their best to convince people that we are trying to close libraries. In fact, we are hoping to increase the number.
The only obstacle has been the ironically-named Save Lincolnshire Libraries group and the Labour Party (not that anyone can tell the difference between the two!).
Their actions have been a costly political exercise in making matters worse for library users, volunteers and staff.
Disgracefully, they have used legal aid to pursue their agenda at taxpayers’ expense and, even more shockingly, a firm of lawyers who, in the past have donated back to the Labour Party. They have pushed the boundaries of ethical behaviour.
And they have done this with complete disregard to the impact it has had on volunteers and staff, who I would like to thank for their patience and commitment through a difficult time.
Hopefully, we can now draw a line under this matter and focus on providing a library that is both more sustainable and more appropriate for the 21st century.
Cllr Martin Hill
Leader of Lincolnshire County Council
Market Rasen Portas Pilot Report http://marketrasenguide.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/2569_MR_SINGLES.pdf
SHU Consultation Report https://savelincslibraries.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/shu-libraries-consultation-final-report-31-october-2013-2.pdf
Angela Montague is a business owner and mother of two school age children. She acknowledges the huge role of libraries in her success as a businesswoman and in the ongoing growth of her children. Her company is Push Creativity Studios, Lincolnshire.