Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Library closures - Barnet council buys itself time

The Barnet council Cabinet this evening discussed the Strategic Library Review (SLR), including the proposed closures of Friern Barnet, Hampstead Garden Suburb and North Finchley libraries. There were a lot of campaigners there from Friern Barnet, in particular, who asked some excellent, probing questions.

The opponents of closure were supported by councillors John Marshall (Conservative) for Garden Suburb library, and Kate Salinger (Conservative), Barry Rawlings and Pauline Coakley-Webb (Labour) for Friern Barnet library - who seemed to be on the same side in this issue, despite being from different parties.

It was an impressive display, which resulted in (or at least confirmed a prior decision of) the Cabinet amending their proposal. The Strategic Library Review was passed, including the planned closures, but subject to
consideration of the feasibility of any community initiatives that come forward from residents on or before 31st October.
What does this mean? I am going to put the most cynical spin on it, based on the information that has come out about the council's negotiations with the Arts Depot.

The simple fact is that the council has no agreement yet for the Arts Depot to house the new service that is to replace Friern Barnet and North Finchley libraries when they are closed. The closure programme is predicated on that new facility being opened, and they are nowhere near getting that.

They were pressed on this point. Could Friern Barnet and North Finchley libraries close before their replacement opens? asked Pauline Coakley-Webb.

The seeming climbdown basically buys the council time. They need it. They need it because they can't afford legal challenges.

And they have played a clever trick: they have put the ball back into the court of the residents campaigning to keep their libraries open. "You come up with a viable plan to keep your local libraries open, and we'll look at it in the autumn," they have said. It sounds generous, but it's nothing like.

I gave my small piece of advice to the residents outside afterwards: I don't think it is your responsibility to spend the next three months working (unpaid) on a plan that you don't know will succeed.

If the council is so sure of its plan, sure enough that they will win any legal challenge, it should have voted it through. If they are not sure, they don't have the right to make residents jump through hoops.

Robert Rams mentioned a residents' plan to run Barnet Museum, which has had its grant from Barnet council cut. Encouragingly, he intimated this was a good plan. But there is a big difference between Barnet Museum and the libraries: the campaigners for the Museum were already running the Museum, have been for decades! The coalition that has formed to defend the local libraries is ad hoc, recent, and doesn't have the capacity to run the libraries! They shouldn't even have to try!

I'm so irritated on the residents' behalf at the Cabinet's cowardice, for that's what I take it to be. There were hints this evening that Richard Cornelius in the Council Leader's chair was finding it all "too upsetting" - an echo of his response two years ago to the decision to cut the wardens from sheltered housing schemes.

He was happy to defer the libraries closure decision to the autumn. Other Cabinet members, more hard-nosed, will be happy to defer the decision to the autumn in case the residents can come up with ways to save the council money. Others still, even more hard-nosed, are probably just worried about the lawyers. I think they are right to be.

Garden Suburb library

There were good points made about how the costs given for the service provided at Garden Suburb library were distorted by the rent they were having to pay. John Marshall raised issues of incompetence, how the council had failed to negotiate a lower rent when it had the chance. Other council-owned property was available to run the service from. Residents didn't use the Institute much and didn't view a self-service collection housed there as a substitute.

Daniel Thomas made himself obnoxious by saying that he lived 100m from the Garden Suburb library but believed the Institute service would be much better. Yeah, bollocks.

Cabinet meetings are like a badly scripted, miscast and under-rehearsed crap play. Daniel Thomas' role is to be the man who reminds everyone ad nauseam that "every council department has to make a sacrifice - or the children, elderly and disabled get it". Let us remind ourselves that he is now the Deputy Leader of the council as well as Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance.

Robert Rams, Cabinet Member for Customer Access and Partnerships, has overseen the SLR. He read from his script this evening, but added very little to the drama. His main role was to stress how the SLR aimed at providing a library service fit for the 21st century, and how it was focused around improving child and adult literacy - as if anyone would be against that!

It is little wonder that David Longstaff, the new Cabinet Member for Safety and Resident Engagement (guffaw) and an actor, said nothing this evening, just sat at the end of his table looking mildly disgusted. "I can't work with these amateurs!" he must have been thinking.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

What you say is absolutely right, and it is important that people understand why: this is a cynical ploy and nothing more.

You might say that the fuss over Garden Suburb is disproportionate: of course the vital factor here is its location in a Tory ward. If there is hesitation and disagreement amongst the Tory ranks over the issue, it's because of nimbyism. To be fair to Marshall, he is one of the few Tories who has some academic and cultural perspective and might actually care about libraries closing. Most of them wouldn't give a monkey's if it were in a Labour ward, I am sure. As to North Finchley, again we are right to be cyncical - taking away with one hand and taking away with another, if no substitute is firmly in place.

Big Society promises about involving the community to save services under threat in this borough is balls: look what happened with Church Farmhouse Museum. This is about slashing budgets in areas the Tories simply don't give a damn about.