Is Kent County Council on the road to widespread library closures?

Will the library closures soon reach Kent? (Image c/o eyebee on Flickr)

Last Friday, Kent councillors got together at County Hall to discuss their recently published report on public libraries across the county. Up until now, Kent had been reasonably quiet compared to other parts of the country, seemingly holding back on closures until they see how effective other councils have been in tearing down their public library services. The only hint about what was likely to come was a previous council meeting when the closure of 40 libraries were proposed (there are around 103 libraries in Kent including mobile libraries). At the time of writing, the actual discussions in that meeting are still a mystery and the meeting minutes are currently subject to an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

What Kent decides next will be significant. As one of the largest library authorities in the country, a programme of closures similar in scale to other authorities could have a significant impact on communities across the county. Either closing 40 libraries or forcing local communities to run them will result in a serious assault on the library service and a devastating impact on those that rely on them the most.

The meeting itself suggested that there is justification for the people of Kent to be concerned about the council’s intentions. The Head of Libraries for Kent has suggested that libraries could easily move into surgeries, schools or shops. Of course, such proposals are absurd and are completely unsustainable. In fact, within the last three years one such library in the county that shared a premises with a local school was closed due to lack of use and a need for the school to expand. Even more disturbing is the Head of Libraries claim that the council is ‘prepared’ to be challenged, suggesting that no matter how hard the people of Kent fight for their service, the council will ensure that they enact the changes that they plan to put together.

There have also been claims that parish councils have offered to run public libraries within their communities. This argument was most recently heard in Gloucestershire where, in actual fact, community groups hadn’t so much ‘offered’ to run the local libraries for the council as forced into doing so to ensure that their service is not closed down. No details have been revealed by Kent regarding which parish councils have offered to take on public libraries across the county, but this is no subject to a Freedom of Information request so hopefully this information will be available soon.

But perhaps most disturbing of all are the ‘locality boards’ that are being established in the county to decide on the future strategy for the public library service. So called ‘locality boards’ were used by the council as part of its ‘Vision for Kent 2011-202’ consultation and were established as follows:

Locality Boards will advise county and district councils on the public service priorities and deliver the countywide ambitions for the locality.

The role of Locality Boards is to:

– advise county and district councils on the public service priorities for the locality;
– deliver the countywide ambitions within the locality;
– advise county and district councils on service provision, moving towards combined place based commissioning where appropriate;
– improve the local accountability to residents for public services in their totality;
– oversee public services in each Locality through direct oversight and community leadership.

The ‘core’ membership of each Locality Board will comprise the elected County Councillors with divisions within the Locality and an equivalent number of District Council Cabinet members. Additional membership of each Board will be decided by the Locality Board depending on the business needs of the Locality.

It is not clear at present what form the ‘locality boards’ will take (indeed many have not even been created yet). Hopefully these boards will be transparent and the public can be fully involved and engaged in the process. Previous boards have placed restrictions on public involvement as well as the distribution of the detail of their meetings. It will be interesting to see how transparent and open these ‘locality boards’ actually are.

As things stand there is much to concern residents of Kent about the sustainability of the plans that have so far been discussed. Indeed, there have been suggestions on a number of local forums that proposals have already been presented to some residents. On one forum it was reported that residents had recently been invited to a meeting hosted by the council examining how it could save money. Attendees were asked to vote on 19 money saving proposals that detailed the pros and cons of the cut in question alongside the amount of money that could be saved. The proposal apparently put before residents for libraries read as follows:

Reduce spending on Libraries by £3 million by closing the least well used libraries and focus on the main town centre hubs.

Kent currently has 101 permanent libraries. which cost £20million to run -the saving would would retain 20 main libraries across the County.

OR alternatively

Transfer the running of smaller libraries to local communities with the Council providing specialist advice.
Saving made would be £3million.

In favour:

(1) Are Libraries an essential service or are they “nice to have”?

(2) Do Libraries still meet the modern needs of society?

(3) Many have access to books and computers in their own homes and do not need KCC to provide them.

Against:

(1) Some feel that libraries provide a community focal point.

(2) A library is more than a place to borrow books, particularly the free internet access.

(3) Some feel that specific groups rely on the services and expertise of Library staff more then others- eg. the young and elderly.

At present it is unclear as to the significance of this meeting, but it has certainly prompted much concern amongst local residents who appear to believe that the councils has already decided on its course of action.

Certainly their concerns are not eased by the attitude of some councillors across the county. During the meeting at County Hall referred to earlier, one councillor (Jean Law representing Herne Bay) observed:

We've closed libraries before without an outcry says Cllr Jean Law #libraries #kcc
@PaulOnPolitics
Paul Francis

Unless there is full transparency and a willingness to engage with local communities (not just parish councils) then there is very much a chance that libraries will be closed without an outcry. People will simply wake up one morning and find that their library has either been closed or ownership transferred before they have had an opportunity to engage in the process. Let us hope that transparency will be at the heart of this process, for the sake of all the people of Kent.

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