Is privatisation the next step for libraries in Kent?

Ramsgate library in Kent (image c/o ijclark on Flickr).

Recently, a number of articles have appeared suggesting that Kent Library Service might be privatised:

Libraries and residential care homes could be among the first key frontline services to be privatised or run by other organisations in a wide-ranging County Hall shake-up.

The two are listed as among the first wave of services Kent County Council intends to subject to what it calls a “market review” under a three-year plan which will get under way next month.

The so-called market review of a dozen services represents the first step in the authority’s move to re-shape itself as a commissioning council – meaning it will focus on contracting out more services to the private and voluntary sector.”

These proposals are nothing new. Kent County Council (KCC) had previously developed secret plans to close up to 40 libraries across the county, and a July 2013 document called ‘Facing the challenge: delivering better outcomes’, endorsed mainly by the ruling Conservative Group on the Council, hinted at the future direction for KCC libraries.

The main thrust of the document is the move from KCC being an authority that delivers public services, to one that commissions or outsources them to private contractors or community organisations, as the document summarises here:

  • Moving to become a commissioning authority – with a greater focus on outcomes and less focus on the process or vehicle used to deliver services.
  • Opening up services to market engagement and review– starting with those services and functions where markets are mature and can help identify new ways of working. 

The document specifically has this to say about libraries:

Future Libraries Programme: The current future library service programme has explored local community solutions to redesign services across each of our 99 libraries to share delivery and assets with our partners, particular parish councils and the voluntary, community & social enterprise sector. The programme will now focus on market engagement and service review activity to actively pursue options for new delivery models, including industrial and provident societies and community benefit societies which have been successfully adopted in other local authorities as a way to sustain frontline community services.

KCC have made it clear in the document that although they intend to do some or most of the scoping work in-house, they haven’t ruled out bringing in outside consultants to assist with preparing the ‘market reviews’ which will obviously add to the cost of the process. They have also set a very tight timeframe for the process and are looking at putting the new models in place by April 2014. This has set alarm bells ringing with some sitting on the Council who do not believe that this is enough time and which could, consequently, lead to mistakes being made in drawing up contracts and choosing providers. Many councillors are also deeply opposed to the proposals, seeing them as nothing more than a ‘slash and burn’ exercise (see 1hr 19mins 45s in for the debate).

Similar proposals are also coming out of Sheffield City Council, where JLIS (currently running Hounslow, Croydon, Ealing and Harrow Libraries) have been mentioned. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if councils up and down the land were now looking at comparable models of divestment. Kent aren’t the first, and they certainly won’t be the last.